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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 October 2021

During a visit to Hereford, Malcolm Guite discovers a mystic path

I HAVE just returned from a delightful expedition to Hereford. I did not tread those mystic paths where

The soft feet of the blessed go
In the soft western vales,
The road the silent saints accord,
The road from Heaven to Hereford,
Where the apple wood of Hereford
Goes all the way to Wales,

as Chesterton says in “A Cider Song”; but I arrived, more prosaically, by train. Nevertheless, my mind was still full of the connections between heaven and Hereford; for I had come to address the Thomas Traherne Society, and would quote that lovely passage from the Centuries of Meditations, where Traherne says: “The green trees, when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap. . . all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the light of day. . . the city seemed to stand in Eden or to be built in Heaven.”

Indeed, that passage in Traherne was the first of his prose that I ever read. I came across it when I was still in the sixth form, in a book of essays by Dorothy Sayers. In that particular essay, she rates Traherne very highly — indeed, she ranks him with Dante and Blake as among the great cartographers and practitioners of what she calls “The Way of Affirmation”.

The Way of Affirmation is the mystic path that ascends to God not by denying or negating all the passing images of the world, not by entering the cloud of unknowing, but, rather, by knowing and affirming the images more deeply still, allowing them to be transfigured, to be translucent with beckonings and kindlings from beyond themselves, while still remaining what they are in the world of flesh and blood.

The Old Testament archetype of this Way is the burning bush, ablaze with the fire of the divine presence, and yet just as rooted and bushy as ever it was. The New Testament archetype is the transfiguration: the body utterly transfigured is still the body that will walk down the mountain, sweat blood in Gethsemane, and be crucified and raised again.

Sayers charts the Way in her essay, from the first moment of vision, when the face of the beloved, or a familiar landscape, or even the apple orchards of Hereford are, for a moment, transfigured, seen under heaven’s light, on through the times when the vision seems lost or veiled, when, as Dante says in the Inferno, “the light is mute,” or when, as Traherne said, the mystic visions of childhood are overlaid or forgotten: “My thoughts . . . were blotted out; and at last all the celestial great, and stable treasures to which I was born, as wholly forgotten as if they had never been.”

But then Sayers goes on to show how, for Traherne, as for Dante and Blake, there was a recovery, a rediscovery, a reaffirmation of the Way: how Traherne learned again that “to live the life of God is to live all the Works of God and to enjoy them in his Image. . . As a child I knew by intuition those things which since my apostasy I collected again by the highest reason.”

So it was “by the highest reason”, by way of poetry, and with a little side of cider, that I took the road from Hereford to heaven, and, eventually, the train back to Norfolk.

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