Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

24 April 2020

Tidying his study, Malcolm Guite recalls poetry from his youth

ONE advantage of the present confinement is that it has given me the time and, occasionally, the inclination to start re-shelving the many random piles of books in my study — or, at least, to begin that Herculean task.

To be honest, I have not got very far with it; for, of course, every time I pick up a book, it takes my interest and I start reading. I happened on a little book that I had almost forgotten: a Folio Society edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which I picked up for a tenner(!) in a second­hand bookshop.

There are, of course, many large and sump­tuous editions of that famously sumptuous poem, but this one is an exquisite miniature. No bigger than the size of my hand, it sits in a little gold presentation box, and, when you open that, you see that the slender volume is bound in a patterned silk cover, lovely to touch. The text is illustrated with a series of delicate Persian miniatures, the first known illustrations of this masterpiece, richly reproduced with all their lovely gold and blue ornament, showing “old Khayyám” and his beloved under a blossoming tree in spring, with the flask of wine, the loaf of bread, the book of verse, and each other. If you are going to have a lockdown, then this is the kind of lockdown that you want!

I scarcely needed to read the flowing verses that accompanied these medieval illuminations; for, as soon as I started, I realised that I had practically the whole poem in my heart, anyway.

I first heard The Rubáiyát, in Edward FitzGerald’s mellifluous translation, from the lips of my mother — for she used to quote it freely — applying its verses to all kinds of cur­rent situations. When she came in to my room to wake me up in the morning, sometimes, instead of saying “Wake up! You’re already late for school,” she would say: “Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night, Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight.”

Or else, if something had gone wrong, or we were frustrated by events, as when, for example, I was recovering from mumps and not al­­lowed out to play with my friends, she would say:
 

“Ah Love! couldst thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”
 

Now, as I held the little book in my hand, I remembered my mother reciting that very verse and I applied it, as she would, to the present sit­uation.

So, this morning, instead of tidying, I sat and half-read, half-remembered, half-recited, the whole glorious poem, and felt afresh that note of gentle elegy, that power to savour every de­­light, because you know it is passing, and I looked through my study window at the blossom-laden boughs of this strange spring and closed that lovely little book still chanting:
 

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows?

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