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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

07 February 2020

Malcolm Guite hunkers down and waits for spring, with John Clare for company

THESE long weeks as January turns, intermin­ably it seems, towards February, and February itself begins so slowly, stuck in its own mire, oppressed by its own lowering clouds: these weeks can be trying, especially for those of us who crave the light and are naturally, and seasonally, cast down by the darkness and drench of winter, those of us for whom there is a hidden pact between the outer and the inner weather.

John Clare, the great “peasant poet”, who wrote with such exact and compassionate obser­va­tion of the fields and seasons of his native Northamptonshire, felt these things deeply, too. He noted that, in February, it’s not so much the continuation of January’s winteriness as the little thaws, the patches and snatches of warmth, the apparent promises of spring, summoning you out, only to turn bitter again and freeze you, that are the most trying.

The poem for February in his The Shepherd’s Calendar is filled with wonderful observations
of nature. The Shepherd sees the sheep waking up to the hope of spring:

The flocks, as from a prison broke,
Shake their wet fleeces in the sun,
While, following fast, a misty smoke
Reeks from the moist grass as they run.

And even his dog seems caught up in the promise of warmth and light:

No more behind his master’s heels
The dog creeps on his winter-pace;
But cocks his tail, and o’er the fields
Runs many a wild and random chase,

My dogs do much the same in the sun-thaw, but, of course, there is a catch: it is still only February, and our hopes have surged a little too soon. So Clare, in a single stanza, sighs away his glimpse of spring:

Thus Nature of the spring will dream
While south winds thaw; but soon again
Frost breathes upon the stiff’ning stream,
And numbs it into ice. . .

Nevertheless, for all its delays, the spring always comes, and, in the mean time, it’s a case of hang­ing on through gritted teeth, hunkering down — “Wintering out The back end of a bad year”, in Seamus Heaney’s phrase.

When it comes to courage and endurance, I find that poetry helps: just knowing that so many of the poets I admire have been through this, too, and given it voice, makes me feel companioned and encouraged, and even prompts me to have a go myself at voicing both the bleakness and the genuine promise of release, as I did in this sonnet:

Because We Hunkered Down

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean
When they are memory. In time to come
When we speak truth, then they will have their
Telling the story of our journey home,
Through dark December and stark January
With all its disappointments, through the
And dreariness of frozen February,
When even breathing seemed unwelcome

Because through all of these we held together,
Because we shunned the impulse to let go,
Because we hunkered down through our dark
And trusted to the soil beneath the snow,
Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,
Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.

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