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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

10 December 2021

Malcolm Guite reflects on how two poets consider time in light of eternity

I HAVE been attempting, without success, to clear my desk and reshelve books. The difficulty with reshelving books is that one is always tempted to open them, and then the next thing you know, the whole morning has gone. So, when I came upon my copies of Herbert’s The Temple and Milton’s Minor Poems, which were lying lopsidedly on top of one another, heedless of time, I began to leaf through them.

What caught my eye this time was that both of these poets had written a poem on Time itself, on time as the gateway or usher of eternity. And, strangely, there was a coincidence of time between the two poems; for Milton had drafted his “Ode On Time” sometime in 1633. That, of course, was the very year that The Temple was published in Cambridge, where Milton, a young man of 24 at the time of writing the poem, had, like Herbert before him, been a student. So, naturally, I re-read both poems synoptically, as it were, and realised how much they had in common.

Herbert starts jauntily, almost cheekily, upbraiding Time, like a young man finding fault with his elders (something not unknown in Cambridge):

Meeting with Time, slack thing, said I,
Thy sithe is dull; whet it for shame.
No marvell Sir, he did replie,
If it at length deserve some blame:
But where one man would have me grinde it,
Twentie for one too sharp do finde it.

Herbert’s rejoinder is that Christ’s coming has completely altered the part played by Time:

Perhaps some such of old did passe,
Who above all things lov’d this life:
To whom thy sithe a hatchet was,
Which now is but a pruning knife.
Christs coming hath made man thy debter,
Since by thy cutting he grows better.

And in his blessing thou art blest:
For where thou onely wert before
An executioner at best;
Thou art a gard’ner now, and more,
An usher to convey our souls
Beyond the utmost starres and poles.

Milton, curiously enough, starts off in a similarly peremptory way by giving Time his marching orders:

Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb
   devours. . .

And then his poem lifts, much like Herbert’s, into a vision of the eternity to which Time leads, at once personal and cosmic:

For when as each thing bad thou hast

And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood. . .
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee
   O Time.

As for Herbert, it is the image of the full-starred heavens which suggests eternity. As I shelved the books next to each other, I reflected that, utterly opposed in churchmanship and politics, these two poets, who would, had Herbert survived, have been on different sides in the Civil War, were now themselves reconciled by time, close neighbours on our shelves and in our thoughts, singing from the same hymn sheet in the literary canon, as, I am sure, they also sing side by side in heaven.

Heaven in Ordinary: A Poet’s Corner collection is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-78622-262-2.

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