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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

10 September 2021

Sitting in a railway carriage, Malcolm Guite experiments with Einsteinian perspective

IT IS always a strange experience when you think that, at last, your train has started out from the station, and then suddenly realise that you are still stationary, and it was the train beside you that was moving, but you perceived that movement as your own not that of the train. And, even when you yourself are actually moving and you see the station sliding out behind you, you can still adopt the other perspective: your train is the still point, and its wheels are pushing the turning world away behind you, pulling it in in front towards you.

That, surely, is the fancy in Robert Louis Stevenson’s lovely children’s poem “From a Railway Carriage”, where it is the landscape itself that charges towards him:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

But perhaps it’s more than a fancy. After all, motion is always relative, and any apparently fixed point against which we measure our movement is itself moving in relation to something else, just as everything in motion, from our perspective, is a still point in relation to something else. Hence Einstein’s famous question to the ticket inspector: “Does Crewe stop at this train?”

I experimented with that perspective on a recent train journey down to the West Country to take part in a conversation about Coleridge and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem that has its own giddying shifts of perspective and scale. So I imagined the Norwich-to-London train as remaining stationary, but gradually pulling London towards it, all the unsuspecting Londoners unaware of their northward journey, and then the Taunton train reeling Somerset in towards Paddington, while pushing London away to make room for it.

But there is another sense in which even a humble railway carriage can become “the still point of the turning world”; for, the moment we begin to pray, the moment the human heart is open to the heart of heaven, and there is a meeting of the human and the divine, of time and eternity, that intersection of time and the timeless always constitutes a new centre — just as prayer itself offers a new perspective, as the ancient mariner found. It was re-reading the poem in my carriage, as we reeled England in under our wheels, that prompted me to pray, for I was moved afresh by the mariner’s spiritual journey. He moves from being a man who could not pray at all —

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust

— to being someone who is released into prayer in the act of blessing his fellow creatures:

The self-same moment I could pray:
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

And finally, at the end of his journey, he has the insight, the totally fresh perspective that links prayer and love:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

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