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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 January 2021

We are not the first generation to long for the time of captivity to end, says Malcolm Guite

THIS is the time of year, in any year, when we might reflect a little ruefully, a little wistfully, on the passage of time. And this year, especially, we might find ourselves wanting to hasten its passage, as we yearn and strain towards the day when the vaccines have been dispensed, when the lockdown is lifted, when the longed-for return of spring and, after it, of summer might not only loosen the frozen rivers and open out the coming buds, but might also unfreeze our chilled lives, unlock our sheltered houses and hearts, and set us free once more for all those loving and affectionate encounters for which we are made; when we might no longer be condemned to see each other in the dark glass and dim reflections of our Zoom screens, but really and joyfully meet one another face to face.

We are not alone on this, and nor are we the first generation held captive by plague and longing for the slow dragging time of our captivity to end. I sometimes wonder whether it was his own experience of plague years that lay behind the memorable opening of Milton’s poem “On Time”:

 

Fly, envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummet’s pace;
And glut thyself with what thy womb devours. . .

 

Those lines were written to be inscribed on a clock, and one can almost hear the slow ticking of a 17th-century timepiece, and the ponderous swinging of its lead-weighted pendulum in the slow sonorous meter, as well as the imagery of “the lazy leaden-stepping hours” and “the heavy plummet’s pace”.

Of course, one also feels a little guilty for wishing time away, as every moment is also a precious and irreplaceable gift. Did Milton also feel that guilt? After all, his Protestant conscience was as heavily burdened with a work ethic as all the rest of us, and he had expressed the agonising sense of time lost or wasted in his sonnet “On His Blindness”: his sense of frustration in finding “That one talent which is death to hide” was “lodged with me useless”. But, even there, in the turn of that poem, he discovered what a later writer called “the stature of waiting”:

 

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask; but patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best, his state
Is kingly. Thousands at His bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

 

But if this sonnet can arrive only at a kind of obedient resignation, the poem on time does something far more positive; for it looks forward, as we all do now, to the true and loving encounter, beyond all these constraints, when “long Eternity shall greet our bliss With an individual kiss; And Joy shall overtake us as a flood”.

I don’t know how long it will be before I embrace “long eternity”, but I do know, separated from my family and friends, how much I long for the day when, setting Zoom aside, we can greet each other with an individual kiss.

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