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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

16 July 2021

Malcolm Guite finds, in the words of another poet, a reflection of his feelings on moving house

AS WE prepare to leave the last of our vicarages and settle in a modest little house that is actually our own, I am minded of the frank confession with which Abraham Cowley opens the preface to his little poem “The Garden”: “I never had any other desire so strong, and so like to covetousness, as that one which I have had always, that I might be master at last of a small house and large garden, with very moderate conveniences joined to them, and there dedicate the remainder of my life only to the culture of them and the study of nature. And there (with no design beyond my wall) whole and entire to lie, In no unactive ease, and no unglorious poverty.”

I shall very soon be “the master of a small house, with very moderate conveniences”, but it does have a garden — not quite the “large garden” that Cowley coveted, but, like the conveniences, “moderate”. I hope, however, that it will be enough to give us some of the pleasures that Cowley went on to enumerate in that poem. Perhaps as July blazes into sweltering August we will be able to say with him, as we rest in our garden:

Oh, blessèd shades! Oh, gentle, cool retreat

From all the immoderate heat,
In which the frantic world does burn and sweat!

and sense with him, amid the shade of trees and the sound of birdsong:

The birds that dance from bough to bough,

And sing above in every tree.
Are not from fears and cares more free,
Than we who lie, or sit, or walk below.

These are, of course, pleasures that Cowley proposed to himself but had not yet achieved. Indeed, in that same preface, he expresses a frustration at sheer busyness and difficulty in his temporary “digs”, even though he is supposed to have retired — a frustration that seems just as current now as it was when Cowley described it, 355 years ago: “But several accidents of my ill fortune have disappointed me hitherto, and do still, of that felicity; for though I have made the first and hardest step to it, by abandoning all ambitions and hopes in this world, and by retiring from the noise of all business and almost company, yet I stick still in the inn of a hired house and garden, among weeds and rubbish, and without that pleasantest work of human industry — the improvement of something which we call (not very properly, but yet we call) our own.”

I can’t complain about my own pre-retirement digs, as they have for many years been capacious vicarages; but I entirely understand that yearning of which Cowley speaks: to live in, and gradually to improve, something that we call (not very properly) our own.

So, Norfolk beckons, and we are already moving the most important and precious things (boxes of books!) into the little semi that we can at last call our own.

No one ever completely retires, of course, clergy least of all, and, given the writing and speaking in which I am still engaged, mine will be, like many retirements, fairly active — or, in Cowley’s immortal words: “No unactive ease and no unglorious poverty”.

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