I WRITE this from my little study-library, at home like so many of us, feeling, as Macbeth sharply put it, “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in To saucy doubts and fears”. What’s to be done? Can I “be bounded in a nutshell, and still count myself a king of infinite space”, as Hamlet mused?
Well, in one sense, I can, we all can: the very fact that this reflection on my own isolation comes to me naturally clothed in the words of Macbeth and Hamlet — the fact that so much of our thought and phrasing, our whole take on things, is formed and framed by the poets of our past — is in itself a testament to a kind of communion, a togetherness at the very sill and root of our expression, a community of language which undoes our isolation.
I am, as I said, at present immured in my study; but the plain fact is that its book-lined walls are not walls at all, but a series of gateways and portals, through which I may travel anywhere and everywhere. There’s a volume of Tolkien just by my chair; for I have quite understandably been lingering in Lothlórien.
I am allowed only one walk a day, for my hour’s exercise, my footpaths circumscribed, my circuits short. But I’m no sooner home than I’m out again, this time in Rob Macfarlane’s good company, making with him a journey on foot along The Old Ways, on track and path, over chalk and silt, following water north and south, over peat and gneiss and granite, roaming over limestone and homing with him through snow and over flint, our pathways ghosted by all who have walked before us, till at the last I am almost startled to find that I am home in my chair with the print of his book in my hand.
And if I don’t want to go out, I have all the writers who come home to me, who bring home to me what I need to know, keep me company, and tell their experience. Right now, the most frequent of these visitors is John Donne. I have open on my desk the powerful prayer journal of his personal experience of lockdown and contagion, when he stayed on in plague-ridden London: the book that he called Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.
Donne is a challenging, searing, but, perhaps for that very reason, comforting companion. It is good sometimes to work with him through his reflections on fear and isolation, his “expostulations”, as he calls them — frankly, a series of cries of pain and anger directed at God — before coming to the great passage, the hymn to human solidarity, for which this book is most famous: Donne’s 17th meditation, when he hears the bell tolling; for that great passage, that refusal to accept isolation as the ultimate reality, rings all the more true for the frank confessions of fear and loneliness which precede it.
So, I am not alone in my study; for I hear Donne, standing beside me, say again those immortal words: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
Read Malcolm Guite’s new poem, “Easter 2020” here.
Malcolm Guite has launched a new YouTube channel: A Spell in the Library.