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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

20 August 2021

Malcolm Guite finds that his books have a habit of sorting themselves on the shelves

IN A recent Poet’s Corner (6 August), I hoped for a little sprinkling of TARDIS-dust to make my new study bigger on the inside than the outside, so as to make room for all my books. But, since I cannot avail myself of the science of Doctor Who, I have turned, instead, to the art of double shelving.

Fortunately, the stout pine boards I am using for my shelving system are deep enough to take two layers of books, and I am trying to shelve the taller ones behind and the shorter ones in front. This, of course, makes havoc of any attempt to arrange my books by subject — not that I was ever very good at that. In spite of my best endeavours, I have always found my books straying: from shelves to tables and desks, from one surface to another, and, eventually, back on to a completely different shelf, since there was no longer room in their original home.

I’ve always felt that the books had a hand in this themselves. It was quite natural that Coleridge would want to spend a little time next to Shakespeare — after all, I had his Lectures On Shakespeare on another shelf somewhere. And, as for the promiscuous Mr Eliot, one week he’d be gadding about with Joyce and the next he’d be ensconced in intimate conversation with Dante. I liked it that way, even though it often took me a long time to find a particular book. But the search was always diverting, and sometimes an education in itself.

When it came to the new system of double shelving, I fancied for a while that I could arrange things so that each book concealed, and was backed up by, its sources. So one would take down a copy of Paradise Lost only to reveal behind it the two great tomes of its foundation: the Bible and the Aeneid. George Herbert’s Works could be taken off the shelf to reveal its progenitors in the Book of Common Prayer, the versified Psalms of Phillip and Mary Sidney, and, of course, the Songs and Sonnets of his friend and mentor John Donne.

Alas, it could not be done. For one thing, there would need to be an Authorised Version of the Bible and a copy of the BCP behind almost every work of great literature which has been written since those two treasures were given to the world. And think what an extensive collection of poetry in several languages, not to mention literary criticism and philosophy, would have to be gathered behind just one slender volume of the poetry of Geoffrey Hill!

So, I have had to settle for sorting by size and not by subject, and, somehow, most, but not all, my books have found their way on to the shelves. They won’t stay there for long, though, and already I see that my Tennyson is consorting with my Malory, while T. H. White seems to be taking supercilious and ironic notes, as well as tragic themes, from both.

And that is just as it should be; for, even in those rare times when the books are closed and silent, back on their shelves, their authors continue a long conversation in my mind, in my dreams, and sometimes in my poetry, too.

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