Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

31 January 2020

Malcolm Guite nurses a pint in the same room in which the Inklings talked theology

I WAS giving a lecture in Oxford the other day, and took the opportunity, as I often do, to drop into the Eagle and Child. It’s a fine old 17th-century pub, unspoiled by “improvement”; it still has a couple of those lovely wood-panelled “snugs” which encourage camaraderie and close conversation — and, most famously, “the Rabbit Room”, where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their friends met on Tuesday lunchtimes, for the kind of sparring, cajoling, but ultimately encouraging conversation that was at the heart of their informal club, “The Inklings”. As Lewis said of these pub sessions, in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves: “The fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking theology.”

It’s a pleasure to raise a pint to their memory in that room, and to imagine the free flow of their talk, to think of how the solid goodness, the conviviality and welcome that Tolkien evoked in the Prancing Pony, might owe something to this place. Indeed, life sometimes imitates art, and, on one occasion, Tolkien recalled, “I noticed a strange tall gaunt man, half in khaki, half in mufti, with a large wide awake hat and a hooked nose sitting in a corner. The others had their backs to him but I could see in his eye that he was taking an interest in the conversation.”

Moments later, the stranger leaned forward and took up the thread of what was being said, and was discovered to be the poet Roy Campbell, who had come from South Africa to Oxford specifically to seek out Lewis and Tolkien. Tolkien reflected that it was just like the moment when Strider is revealed at the Prancing Pony, an episode from the unfinished New Hobbit,which he had only recently read to his fellow Inklings.

So, as I sat in that dark little snug, nursing my pint, in the same corner, if not the same chair, as that wayfaring poet, I savoured the way in which literary inns enhance one’s appreciation of real inns, and vice versa.

The other good thing about “The Bird and Baby”, as the Inklings called it, is that it is just a few doors down from the Oxfam bookshop, which, as one would expect in Oxford, is always well-stocked, and, sometimes, I pop in there on my way to the pub. On this occasion, I picked up a nice hardback edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, a choice of which both Tolkien and Lewis would have approved. Enjoying the happy combination of beer and Beowulf, I recalled that “Beer and Beowulf” was the name Lewis gave to his Anglo-Saxon tutorials at Magdalen. How much more attractive a title than “Linguistics 101: The Vowel Shift”!

Before I drained my pint, I recited (under my breath) a little tributary sonnet to Lewis:
 

From “Beer and Beowulf” to the seven heavens,
Whose music you conduct from sphere to sphere,
You are our portal to those hidden havens
Whence we return to bless our being here.
Scribe of the Kingdom, keeper of the door
Which opens on to all we might have lost,
Ward of a word-hoard in the deep heart’s core,
Telling the tale of Love from first to last.
Generous, capacious, open, free,
Your wardrobe-mind has furnished us with worlds
Through which to travel, whence we learn to see
Along the beam, and hear at last the heralds
Sounding their summons, through the stars that sing,
Whose call at sunrise brings us to our King.

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