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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

18 June 2021

Drifting gently on his boat down the Cam, Malcolm Guite reflects on reflections

I HAVE managed, at last, to get out on to the river again in my little boat, Willow. I found my freedom on one of the first of those really sunny days in June, and to say that I went sailing would be a misnomer; for it was so still that I just floated, drifting gently on the Cam, the little red sail idly flapping, but reflected beautifully in the still waters, as though beneath me, in some different upside-down world, a magical boat drifted on with wavering mast and sails, scattered and collected in the ripples sent out by a falling leaf or a passing swan. My pleasure in the reflections themselves called to mind a passage from George MacDonald’s Phantastes (the booktthat C. S. Lewis said had baptised his imagination), which I have recently been re-reading:

“Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality? — not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still.”

Indeed, another passage, a little earlier, was almost an exact description of my afternoon with Willow: “I lay down in the bottom, and let my boat and me float whither the stream would carry us. I seemed to lose myself in the great flow of sky above me unbroken in its infinitude, except when now and then, coming nearer the shore at a bend in the river, a tree would sweep its mighty head silently above mine, and glide away back into the past, never more to fling its shadow over me. I fell asleep in this cradle, in which mother Nature was rocking her weary child.”

But MacDonald is right in his reflection on reflections, and right when he says a little later in that same passage: “All mirrors are magic mirrors. The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.”

Why is this? I think it has something to do with beholding the familiar from another angle and in a new light; something to do with the distinction such glimpses allow between image and reality; some way in which they suggest, however subliminally, that all the images we now behold, all that we have taken for the only reality, might be more than themselves, might be images and reflections of something greater.

So it was, floating down the stream of the Cam, that I found my mind floating and reflecting on another stream: a stream of thought, the richly flowing tradition of Christian Platonism, which has run through our history, sometimes openly, sometimes submerged; a tradition that tried to harmonise the great truths of the gospel with the deepest reflections of the philosophers. That particular stream flowed most fully just here, by the Cam, through the minds and writings of the Cambridge Platonists.

My reveries came to a natural end when I found that Willow had drifted me gently up to the Bridge, a fine inn at Waterbeach. I stepped lightly ashore for some refreshment in their lovely waterside garden, where, I must confess, my relations with my pint of Wherry were more than Platonic!

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