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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

09 October 2020

Malcolm Guite dons his ‘greatcoat’, inspired by some literary heroes

A SURE sign that the year has turned is that my Harris jacket is no longer sufficient for the keener winds and chilly mizzle, and I pull on my old greatcoat before setting out with the dogs. I love that coat. It’s a vast, heavy, tightly woven swath of Donegal tweed with a padded lining and enormous pockets. The sleeves are fraying more than a little, and it’s scarcely the height of fashion, but it’s an old friend whose warm comfort always encourages me; for we have weathered many a storm together

It’s intriguing to forage in its pockets when it gets its first autumn outing. There are gloves, of course, and old bus tickets, bits of string, a penknife I thought I’d lost, cough sweets, a couple of last year’s conkers, shrivelled and sheenless now, and, surprisingly, a smooth round stone. I must have picked it up walking on some wintry beach because I liked its wavy pattern.

But, feeling it in my greatcoat pocket now, I’m suddenly taken back to my youthful obsession with Samuel Beckett, and I’m standing with his stoical character Molloy, alone on a wintry beach, with 16 stones distributed evenly across the four pockets of his greatcoat, shifting them stolidly, obsessively, one by one, from pocket to pocket, occasionally putting one in his mouth, like Demosthenes, as he stood on the edge of things and endured existence.

And then, as I adjusted and buttoned the coat, I was with another literary hero: Dai Greatcoat, David Jones’s alter ego in his poem about the Great War, In Parenthesis, when, amid the horrors of the Western Front, he makes his great boast, as much Taliesin, or King David, as Private Jones:

This Dai adjusts his slipping shoulder-straps,
   wraps close his

misfit outsize greatcoat — he articulates his
   English with an

alien care. . .
I was the spear in Balin’s hand
that made waste King Pellam’s land. . .
I took the smooth stones of the brook,
I was with Saul
playing before him. . .

Dai Greatcoat was a name that Jones took for himself, and never could a garment and a poet have had a closer fit — except, perhaps, for one other.

The young Coleridge’s unquenchable enthusiasm, and his delight in ordinary things, extended also to his greatcoat, which he bought for his first sea-journey, sailing with the Wordsworths to the continent. He wrote to his wife: “I wrapped myself up in my great Coat, lay in the Boat, and looked at the water, the foam of which, that beat against the Ship & coursed along by it’s sides, & darted off over the Sea, was full of stars of flame. . . I found reason to rejoice in my great Coat, which I bought in London and gave 28 shillings for — a weighty, long, high caped, respectable rug. . .”

All these associations were as tightly woven as the Donegal tweed itself into my pleasure in wearing my own respectable rug, as I turned up its collar and stepped out, well protected, into the weather. And, on that autumn walk, against an already wintry wind, I reflected that we could all do with some of Molloy’s stoical endurance, Dai Greatcoat’s defiant bravado, and Coleridge’s magical enthusiasm, to help us through this particular winter.

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