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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

26 June 2020

A chance encounter stirs in Malcolm Guite a golden swarm of literary bees

JUST on the edge of Linton, where one of the quieter roads into the village dips down through the little ford over the Granta, there is a small corner of a field screened from the road by a stand of mature trees, where one can glimpse, just beyond the trees, a few neat white beehives.

Sometimes, when the sun strikes through, one catches the glimmer of the bees’ wings, and, when the air is still enough, one hears them, too, busy in “the bee-loud glade”, as Yeats put it. Yeats, of course, was consoling himself, on the “pavements grey” in London, by imagining the Lake Isle of Innisfree; but it is one of the blessings of life in Linton that I can walk by this little ford every morning and enjoy it in fact as well as in memory. There are sometimes doves and pigeons in the trees, too; so it is Tennyson, more often than Yeats, who is summoned to my mind, in those two most mellifluous lines of England’s most musical poet: “The moan of doves in immemorial elms, And murmuring of innumerable bees.”

Alas, the elms are no more, but, the other morning, walking there, I met, for the first time, the beekeeper himself. I was just coming up from the ford into the shade of the trees when I smelt a strange sweet smoke and saw a figure completely swathed in his full beekeeper’s suit and visor, testing the little puffs of smoke with which he was shortly to try and calm the bees when he went to inspect the hives.

At first, seeing this swathed and masked figure spraying away, I thought this was some moment of post-Covid decontamination, and then, of course, I realised, no, this was in a long continuity: beekeepers have always dressed like this. Though I must say that if one were looking for a pastime that combined social distancing and very thorough PPE, then beekeeping would be the one to go for.

We stopped to talk (from the given distance), and he explained to me that he was fairly chary of his task that morning; for, as he said, “The bees can be very feisty in June”. But, as the talk continued, it was clear that there was a great deal of affection blended in with the wariness and respect.

As I wandered on, I found that the encounter had stirred in me a little golden swarm of literary bees, which are, happily, all honey and no sting. The beekeeper’s respectful affection for his little charges had put me in mind of the poem “The Bee-Boy’s song”, at the start of Kipling’s magical story “Dymchurch Flit”, and the bee-boy’s insistence that we must be open with the bees and tell them everything:

Marriage, birth or buryin’,

News across the seas,
All you’re sad or merry in,
You must tell the Bees.

I thought, too, of a favourite image in one of Rilke’s letters, which had transformed my understanding of what poetry is, and in which he compares the work of poets to the work of bees: “It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again ‘invisibly,’ inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”

I was glad that the bees were there outwardly and visibly, so that they might also be at work inwardly and spiritually.

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