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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 January 2021

In lockdown, the words of the Psalms have come alive, Malcolm Guite finds

ONE consequence of these long lockdowns for me, as I imagine for many, has been a deep dive into the all-renewing river of the scriptures, and for me especially, the book of Psalms. In the busy years before Covid, amid over-full diaries, stressed commuting, and daily Offices rushed or omitted altogether, I felt I was just paddling in the shallows of the allotted psalms, racing through maybe just one of them, with scarcely an eye on what I was reading.

But lockdown changed all that. The words came to life: the cries of distress, the urgent questions: why? how long?, the frank confessions of fear, and especially the yearning, amid all the uncertainty, amid “the changes and chances of this fleeting world”, for something permanent, reliable, steadfast, unchanging — all those psalmic themes spoke not only to my heart but seemed to be spoken from my heart.

And so it was that I embarked on the project of shaping my new responses to the Psalter into a sequence of poems which was also, in another sense, a single poem: a “corona” of linked verses charting my journey through the Psalter. In the course of this, a curious thing happened: I found that the Psalter unlocked and released some poems which I had been waiting to write for a long time, but for which, hitherto, I had found neither the words nor the occasion.

I reflected in these pages a couple of weeks ago on Milton’s ode “On Time” (Poet’s Corner, 8 January), whose themes are close to my heart, and I always felt that, one day, I’d like to get my own sense of time itself, and its relation to eternity, into verse, especially my sense of elegy: of the brevity of each moment, its fleetingness, the way each experience, however rich, falls away from us even at the moment we apprehend it, and yet we trust that all that is good in it, all that comes from the Creator, must be gathered and found in him for ever, even as it flees away from us.

In the end, it was Psalm 63, one of the great psalms of yearning, with its opening rush of verbs — verbs of seeking, thirsting, longing, and looking, and its astonishing promise, “My soul shall be satisfied” — that finally released my unwritten poem. It came out like this: 

 

LXIII Deus, Deus meus

For love lifts time into eternity,
Kisses each passing moment into life,
Gives us a glimpse of your unfading glory.

We fall away like every falling leaf
But even as we fall we yearn to you.
Our prayers are passing and our blessings brief,

Yet each one reaches deeply into you
For you yourself are reaching into us
To breathe your life in us and make us new:

The barren wasteland is made glorious
With blossoms, breathing an eternal spring
And even as this first world fades from us,

We step into the true world and we sing
A joyful song, for there at last we see
Our heart’s desire: our risen lord and king.

 

Online book launch: David's Crown: An evening with Malcolm Guite on the Psalms, 11 February 7 p.m., FREE but registration required. 

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