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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

13 April 2020

Malcolm Guite reflects on living between memory and hope

AH WELL, this would have been the week for many of us to slip away for that well-deserved post-Easter break — away from the desk, the phone, the laptop, the parish itself. We might have been breathing the fresh air on long country walks, refreshing ourselves in wayside inns, or otherwise disporting ourselves in some happy little nook or corner of the kingdom. But our world is shrunken now, and we are held in a still space between “before all this happened” and “when this is all over”: a space between memory and hope.

Memory takes me back to a delightful spot that Maggie and I visited two years running for Easter Week: the little Somerset village of Nether Stowey, nestled below the Quantocks; for there, of course, stands Coleridge’s cottage.

Confined to my own little garden now, I am suddenly visited by intense memories of Coleridge’s cottage garden, and of sitting with Maggie in its little Lime Tree Bower and reading aloud the poem that Coleridge set there: “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison”. Re-reading that poem now, I revisit the same spot and realise that Coleridge, as always, is speaking to my condition; for this is a poem of confinement, a poem of frustration, and, yet, of imaginative release — a poem that is located, like all of us, between memory and hope.

Coleridge had been looking forward to a long walk with his London friend Charles Lamb, and to showing and sharing the delights that he and Wordsworth had been discovering together; but no sooner had Lamb arrived than Coleridge was disabled. (Sara, his wife, accidentally tipped scalding milk on his foot in their crowded little cottage. These things happen when we’re all cooped up together.) So, Coleridge was left behind while Wordsworth, Lamb, and the others went off together. And so he opens his poem: “Well, they are gone, and here must I remain, This lime-tree bower my prison!”

He laments that he has “lost beauties and feelings” that would have enriched his memory in later years. But then, from his confinement, he begins to imagine their walk, to accompany them vicariously, and so allows us to do the same. So, we, too, as we read, wherever we are confined, emerge

Beneath the wide wide Heaven — and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea. . .

Then comes the great turn of the poem, in which Coleridge is suddenly set free from his resentment and frustration, and can delight in their freedom as though it were his: “A delight Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad As I myself were there!”

And that brings him back to his bower, to a deep appreciation of where he is, to gaze at the familiar with new eyes and close attention, and find that there is plenty to employ

Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
’Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.

So, though I am, like Coleridge, “bereft of promis’d good”, I have enough, in between my Eastertide catnaps, to keep my heart awake: enough to move me on from memory to hope.


Read Malcolm Guite’s new poem, “Easter 2020” here.

Malcolm Guite has launched a YouTube channel: A Spell in the Library.

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