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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

28 August 2020

The twilight before thunder falls puts Malcolm Guite in mind of The Waste Land

I WAS walking, once more, in the August heat, along that path between the stubble field of harvested wheat and the stream of the Granta. The farmer, I thought, must be glad to have got his crop safely in before the thunderstorms and rains that are surely coming.

All week, the tension had been building and, now, as I walked, foolishly, without a raincoat, I could see the dark clouds gathering and from almost all quarters the first low mutterings of thunder coming gradually closer. I was wary, for I was unprotected; but also relieved; for I longed for a break in the tension, the heat, and humidity, longed for the blessing of rain at last.

This strange tense twilight, before the lightning falls and the clouds open, always puts me in mind of the mysterious final section of The Waste Land, which Eliot titled, “What the Thunder said”, and which resolves and transforms so much of the tension that builds throughout the poem.

I love the wayin which the scenes shift in that section from the road to Emmaus, with its open question “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”, to the Ganges and the Himalayas, when the muttering of the thunder becomes a Sanskrit sacred text, and the thunderstroke that we have been dreading turns out to be beneficent; for the thunder says “DA”. And we hear it as “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.” — “Give, sympathise, control”, as Eliot tells us in his notes. And, hearing that counsel, we can come at last to the peace and blessing with which that poem ends: “Shantih shantih shantih”.

In a master stroke, Eliot, in his notes, takes us back from the Upanishads to the Book of Common Prayer, as he translates those final words as: “The peace which passeth understanding”.

The little stream of the Granta is not the holy Ganges, but any path can be the road to Emmaus, and, listening to the thunder, I was taken out beyond the waste land and the Prayer Book to George Herbert’s bold reversal of thunder itself, to his insight that sometimes, in prayer, it is not God, but we ourselves, who do the thundering, who must let our growing tensions finally leap out and resolve. So Herbert calls some kinds of prayer “reversed thunder”.

When I came to write my own poem on that phrase of Herbert’s, I sensed that the outer tension and release of a thunderstorm speaks directly into our own inner weather, and that there is a place for all that weather, thunder included, in our prayer life:

 

Reversèd Thunder

This light is muffled, muted, murky, dense,
Thick with a threat of thunder unreleased.
The clouds are darkening, the air grows tense,
The coming storm is lowering in the east.
Something within me trembles too, and pales,
Though no one sees the brooding darkness there,
Or feels the tension building between poles
Of faith and doubt, of vision and despair.

 

Everything deepens, gathers to a head:
Anguish and anger at my absent God
Until the charge of all that’s left unsaid
Leaps out at last to find its lightning rod.
But even as the skies are rent and riven
I find that lightning rod is earthed in heaven.

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