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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

20 November 2020

The singing of birds puts into Malcolm Guite’s mind an apocryphal story

ALTHOUGH our first lockdown was on the verge of spring, and our second on the verge of winter, they have both, for me, been marked by an enhanced awareness of the bird life all around me. And not only the visible birds on our garden bird-feeder, but the sparrows and chaffinches rustling and chittering in the hedgerows alongside the paths of my daily walks, and just beyond the edge of sight, in copse and close, the contrasting songs of robin and blackbird criss-crossing my path.

The other happy sound that greets me in this second lockdown, and was so conspicuously and tragically absent from the first, is the laughter and chatter of children rushing round the climbing frames and roundabouts in the village playground, which has mercifully remained open this time round.

I think it was the combination of the chattering children and the singing birds which put me in mind of that lovely apocryphal story, from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, about Jesus playing with the other children by the river, and, like them, making little birds of clay, and then, when no one was looking, breathing them into life so that they grew feathers and flew away singing. It is one of those charming stories that failed to make the cut in the canonical Gospels, although, interestingly, it did make it into the Qur’an; but I’m not the only Christian to have drawn something from it.

George MacDonald must have been on just such a winter walk as mine when, in his entry for 14 November in The Diary of an Old Soul, he wrote:

My prayer-bird was cold — would not away,
Although I set it on the edge of the nest.
Then I bethought me of the story old —
Love-fact or loving fable, thou know’st best —
How, when the children had made sparrows of clay,
Thou mad’st them birds, with wings to flutter and fold:
Take, Lord, my prayer in thy hand, and make it pray.

I love that idea of our poor, clay-cold prayers being given warmth and wings by the breath of God. I also love the way that MacDonald suspends his judgement about the status of story itself, between “love-fact” and “loving fable”, and can find encouragement either way.

A generation after MacDonald, another Christian poet found strength in this story, too, and his poem also ended in prayer. “Birds”, Hilaire Belloc’s take on the story, has about it a nursery-rhymish, incantatory feel:

When Jesus Christ was four years old
The angels brought Him toys of gold,
Which no man ever had bought or sold.

And yet with these He would not play.
He made Him small fowl out of clay,
And blessed them till they flew away:
Tu creasti Domine

Then Belloc ends his poem with a little triplet that is as much my prayer as his:

Jesus Christ, Thou child so wise,
Bless mine hands and fill mine eyes,
And bring my soul to Paradise.

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