Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

21 February 2020

Although it can bring danger and destruction, Malcolm Guite enjoys feeling the power of a high wind

THERE is something exhilarating about being out in a high wind — about being buffeted by the big gusts, drawn forward in the lulls, tugged and almost turned round in the eddies; it’s like dancing with an enthusiastic but not so sure-footed giant. I know that the strong winds of late have brought real challenges and some tragic losses, and, even in the comparatively sheltered east, we have had many trees down. Even my little journey from Linton to Cambridge was diverted twice by fallen trees and debris, and yet I still cannot help but exalt in the strength and surge of a gale, for all its element of danger.

This latest storm, as it blew me across the village green with the dogs, whose coats were billowing around them like miniature spinnakers, put me in mind of the jubilant opening sentences of G. K. Chesterton’s high-spirited novel Manalive: “A wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness, and tore eastward across England, trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea. In a million holes and corners it refreshed a man like a flagon, and astonished him like a blow.”

And, later that night, back in the house and listening to the wind wuthering and hunting all around it, and the sound of the wind in the trees like a roar of waves as I lay in bed unable to sleep, I remembered and inwardly recited the opening verse of Ted Hughes’s poem “Wind”, which I first read in the fifth form and has entranced me ever since:
 

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet.
 

But a good strong wind brings me more than literary pleasure: there is always a lifting, a cleansing, an exhilaration of the spirit. I called Chesterton’s literary account of a high wind “high-spirited”, and, of course, that very phrase speaks of a deeper kinship between the inner spirit and the outer atmosphere, and speaks of what Owen Barfield called an “original unity”. For, as Barfield pointed out in his book Poetic Diction, and as is well known to all biblical Scholars, the Hebrew word ruah, and the Greek word pnuema — indeed, the Latin word spiritus — all mean both spirit and wind, or breath. The Spirit of God that moved on the face of the deep is also the divine breath and a mighty rushing wind; and the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost is the Holy Spirit. When Christ says: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

The word is pnuema in both cases: he could equally well be saying “the Spirit bloweth where it listeth . . . so is every one borne before the wind.” It was for later generations to decide between the metereological and the theological, between inspiration and respiration, perhaps making too sharp a divide between the outward and the inward.

Either way, I walk out on the windy ridge, and am glad that the invisible energy that surges, lifts, and moves around me also breathes on me and into me, like the breath of God.

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