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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

31 December 2021

Malcolm Guite raises a glass to another circuit completed around the sun

NEW YEAR’S EVE may be a time to let go and look forward, but, none the less, we are sometimes haunted by the past that we leave behind, the voices that mutter of “let-downs and erosions” (to borrow Heaney’s phrase). Some of us are especially haunted, willingly or unwillingly, by the nagging voice of the Protestant Work Ethic, the unrested ghost that says, “Another year gone and what have you achieved?” How should we answer it? To satisfy it? Or to banish it?

Since it’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m contemplating a whole year, another extraordinary circling of the sun, I’m tempted to reply: “What have I achieved? Well, I’ve achieved a consistent speed of 67,000 miles an hour. That’s not bad for a man in his sixties. And, since last New Year’s Eve, I have covered, without even breaking into a sweat, a distance of 92.96 million miles.

“Admittedly, it was not a solo effort: I had considerable help from the earth herself as she carried me through space; and from the sun, on the circle of whose glorious gravitation we all balanced; and I made the journey in the good company of every other living person, and all the myriad of other creatures with whom our lives are so closely intertwined and with whom we share this astonishing world — this world by which, as Donne says, we ourselves are whirled. Yes, despite everything, we completed our circuit together: we made it. A cause for considerable thanksgiving.”

And, if that heretical ghost, who thinks I’ll be saved privately and alone by my own individual works, persists in his taunts and says, “Ah, but that doesn’t count; you had help, you were lifted up and carried by energies more than your own, and you shared the achievement; you had no distinction,” I shall reply, “Precisely! And that would be equally true of anything else, any other work of which you would tempt me to be proud, or of whose failure you would tempt me to despair.

“It is true of the books I have written, and the books I have failed to write. All the words I use are the gifts and the creation of another, all my ideas are both received and handed on in the long conversation of the human mind. It’s all given; it’s all shared; it’s all exchanged: none of it is actually mine.

“What have I achieved? Of course, I have achieved nothing. How could I? But we — all of us — have achieved everything: whatever love has survived and flourished, whatever hope has been kindled, whatever shelter offered, cure invented, vaccine boosted, food served, welcome spoken, all of that has been the work of all.”

So, as ever, I will raise the glass at midnight, the glass of what has been given (in this case, whisky — usquebaugh — the water of life). I shall raise it, share it, exchange it, and pledge us all for another hair-raising, seemingly impossible, circuit round our sun. And I will rest in the knowledge that, as surely as that sun holds us in our orbit, pours its energy into our world, and lights our days, so also another Sun, the Sun of Righteousness, rises within each of us, holds us in the beautiful gravitation of his love, and pours on us, and through us, his splendid energy, who knows what he will achieve in us this coming year.

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