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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

15 May 2020

Malcolm Guite composes some ‘Quarantine Quatrains’

AS I mentioned in an earlier column, I have been re-reading The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and taking comfort, pleasure, and fresh insight from it in this lockdown (Poet’s Corner, 24 April). I’ve also been re-entranced by its elegant form. FitzGerald cast his translation into a series of little quatrains: four-line stanzas, each chiming sonorously on a single rhyming sound. They start with a couplet, and then he allows himself a free unrhymed line to gather energy and momentum, before bringing the quatrain to a close, as the final line returns to the first rhyme sound with renewed emphasis, and satisfying finality.

Spurred on by this example, I have been composing some “Quarantine Quatrains” of my own, in a kind of leisured conversation with the original Rubáiyát, but also as something of a lockdown journal. Looking back on these, I see a progression, or pattern, through which many of us have been moving: I started with a sense of the unexpected opening out of time and apparent leisure:

Awake to what was once a busy day
When you would rush and hurry on your way
Snatch at your breakfast, start the grim commute
But time and tide have turned another way.

But soon, of course, I found that Zoom came zooming in, and I had to negotiate the strange ambivalence of that medium: the way the closeness of familiar faces on the screen teases you with connection, and, at the same moment, only emphasises distance:

We used to stroll together on the green
Who now divide the squares upon the screen,
The faces of our friends, so far apart
Tease us with tenderness that might have been

But when I retreated, zoomed out again, to my garden hut, I found myself bathed and soothed by the birdsong that I celebrated here two weeks ago (1 May), and also by a more general awareness of how nature is returning, of the natural “rewilding” that is taking place all around us. And, here, the original poem, once more, proved suggestive, if not prophetic; so I began one of my own quatrains with a couplet of Khayyám’s: 

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep:
But now in every corner of the world
The wild things flourish whilst the cities sleep.

Such reflection led me, as it has so many others, to wonder whether this crisis might lead us to a chastened, and gentler way of being in the world:

Perhaps in all this crisis, all this pain,
This reassessment of our loss and gain
Nature rebukes our brief authority
Yet offers us the chance to start again

And this time with a new humility,
With chastened awe, and mutual courtesy;
To re-accept the unearned gift of life
With gratitude, with joy and charity.

Perhaps we’ll learn to live without so much
To nurture and to cherish, not to clutch,
And, if I’m spared, I’ll hold the years I’m given
With gentler tenure and a lighter touch.

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