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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 October 2021

Malcolm Guite finds new beauty in the falling of autumnal leaves

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky.


THESE limpid lines of Yeats were in my mind as I walked through the autumnal woods — not in Yeats’s twilight, but early on a golden October morning, as shafts of bright sunlight came glancing between trunks and leaves, and lit up the smooth limbs of the beech trees with such a living glow that I could almost believe in dryads.

But, even as their fine leaves turn from green to a rich coppery red, they fall; and yet, in that fall, there is new beauty. The leaves are lovely on the trees, but no less lovely and graceful in their falling, or in the rich new patterns, the strange and delicate tessellation that they make, in the ever-changing carpet on the forest floor. To fall, to be falling, to have fallen, carries such dark connotations for us that it is good to be reminded that even falling can be graceful, that loss and change can bring their own poignant beauty.

I remembered, too, some lines from my own poem “In Praise of Decay”:


So praise Him in the old and mouldering:

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge,
In mottled compost rustling and rich,
From which the stuff of life is still unfolding.


When I came home from that walk, I found that the postman had delivered a beautiful little book, for which I had written the foreword, which, in its own way, finds the poetry in loss, in letting ago, in the gradual falling away of the leaves of our lives.

In Words To Remember: Poems lost and found, Phil Sharkey, who is a hospital chaplain to geriatric patients, has achieved something remarkable. He has taken the years of quiet attention and patient listening to confused and bewildered elderly patients, going through the the slow losses, the fallings away of dementia, and, out of their words, he has discerned and crafted “found poems” to give their voices a new coherence and music. Then, to each of these “found poems”, he has written a poem in response, a poem that finds and honours the lost person to whom he has been listening — providing, as he says in one of the poems, “Words for the wordless, food for fingers, crumbs for the soul. . .”

I was especially moved by the poem, and its answering reflection, “Losing Myself”. The poem formed from the words of the patient had these lines:


I’m ever so sorry — I’m losing myself. . .

I want to see my son a lot nearer,
I’m sorry,
I’m losing myself. . .


Phil’s reflective reply seemed to take up and gather what was lost, as we might gather autumn leaves, and also, in its own way, to promise spring and resurrection:


But hold fast to this, hold fast to this truth

The you that was created for love and life, is precious,
We will not lose you.

Our hands are here to hold and heal, and as you take your rest,
the son you long for is drawing nearer.

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