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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

16 October 2020

Out on an autumn walk, Malcolm Guite, like Shelley, exults in the wind in the trees

I HAVE been out and enjoying our windy autumn weather. I always feel a surge of excitement when a big gust comes, and I exalt in the “wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being”, as Shelley called it in his exhilarating ode.

It’s especially thrilling when one approaches woodland in a big wind, and so it was for me, pushing my way through the gusts as I climbed Rivey Hill and approached the ancient woodland that clothes its summit. The closer I got, the louder came the roar of the wind in the trees. It’s an extraordinary sound: if you close your eyes, it might be the roar and pounding of waves in a storm, and you have the momentarily dislocating eeriness of the sound of the sea above you.

I didn’t go into the woods themselves, as I could imagine not only “the leaves dead, Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red”, but also, in this wind, great branches flying and falling, and, perhaps, even one or two of the trees coming down; so, I skirted the top of the wood and simply savoured the sound.

As I walked, I found that it was not only Shelley’s ode, but something far older, that came to my mind: the rhythmic cadences of Coverdale’s version of Psalm 29 from the Prayer Book: “The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedar-trees: yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Libanus. He maketh them also to skip like a calf: Libanus also, and Sirion, like a young unicorn.”

Earlier this year, it gave me great pleasure to make my own poetic response to that psalm in David’s Crown, the psalm-poems that I have been writing, and I realised that the poetic form of terza rima, which I had chosen for that sequence, was, in fact, the same form that Shelley had used in the “Ode to the West Wind”. In my poem, though, I wanted more than the great voice of the wind in the trees, the rivers in full spate, and the thunder. I also wanted the voice of conscience; and, more than that, the voice of compassion which seems to speak from the very wounds of Christ.

The poem came out like this:

XXIX Afferte Domino

Call us O Christ, and open up the gate.
Call us to worship with your mighty voice:
The voice that sings through rivers in full spate,

The voice in which the forests all rejoice,
The voice that rolls through thunderclouds, and calls
The deep seas and steep waves, the quiet voice

That stirs our sleeping conscience and recalls
Us to the love we had abandoned, leads
Us through the parting mists of doubt, or falls

Upon us like a revelation, pleads
With us upon the poor’s behalf, blazes
In glory from each burning bush, and bleeds

Out from compassion’s wounds, raises
Our spirits till we dance for joy
And gives us too, a voice to sing his praises.

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