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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

17 January 2020

A January walk through Rivey Wood kindles Malcolm Guite’s imagination

IN A fit of January self-improvement, I have taken to climbing Rivey Hill. Linton is proud to nestle below one of the few hills in Cambridgeshire, and, whereas many counties wouldn’t go so far as to call it a hill at all, in the flatlands of East Anglia it seems positively Alpine, towering up to its full 367 feet and crowned with a quirky water tower which seems oddly reminiscent of a Chinese pagoda.

But the chief pleasure of Rivey Hill is not the exertion of the ascent up the ancient Icknield Way between open fields, but the descent through Rivey Wood. The wood covers one part of the hill, and looks just like those drawings of “the Wild Wood” in The Wind in the Willows which so kindled one’s childhood imagination.

There is, indeed, something magical, some kindling of imagination, every time one steps into a wood; for woods, it seems to me, never lose their rich mythical and literary associations: the greenwood tree, the forest of Arden, the wild wood, the dark forest, Lothlorien, the wood between the worlds.

Charles Williams, the poet, novelist, and theologian, felt that sense of literary rootedness, of branching and interleaving, in the very idea of a woodland, and he wrote, in his remarkable book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice, that “the image of a wood” in literature has become, in all of our minds “a great forest where, with long leagues of changing green between them, strange episodes of high poetry have place. Thus in one part there are lovers of a midsummer night, or by day a duke and his followers . . . in another a poet listening to a nightingale. . .”

Perhaps the woodland is itself a symbol of the imagination: rooted, growing, endlessly branching out, and ever changing. If you can’t step into the same river twice, then you certainly can’t step into the same wood. I have walked through Rivey Wood in every season, from the first fresh, tender green when budded leaves put forth, through the carpets of bluebells in May, to the rich, almost infinitely variegated greens of high summer, to all the ochres of autumn.

And, now, the wood is in its winter beauty. I step from the main track on to the little path that leads into the wood, and, even in January, I am in another world: last autumn’s leaves lie dried and brown in rich drifts at my feet, and the trees themselves, naked now, reveal their lovely shapes at last. They throw out their branches in extravagant, twisted, impossible gestures. The elderly and infirm have tottered gracefully and half-fallen into the arms of the young, and I must stoop beneath their aged trunks, where they cross the path at shoulder height.

My ascent was open, straight, and narrow, but coming down through the wood, the dogs and I take twists and turns, lose and find our path, descend into little valley-folds damp with rivulets and rising springs, and re-ascend past the open-mouthed burrows of other, earthier, more ancient denizens of this wood. George and Zara can scarcely contain their excitement.

My thought also takes new turns in a wood; fresh possibilities for poetry suggest themselves. Indeed, I sometimes sense that a new poem might emerge from cover, fully formed, and show itself, like a shy deer, if I stood still long enough. But my greyhounds haven’t the patience for that.

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