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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

11 March 2022

Amid the distressing reports of war, Malcolm Guite finds himself remembering Yeats

IT IS strange, but somehow heartening, as I begin each morning walk, to turn from the dire sounds of warfare transmitted to us live on the Today programme by those incredibly brave BBC journalists, to turn from that dissonant radio soundscape, into our local woods, alive with lovely birdsong, and see the birds themselves flitting between the trees and bushes, beginning to build their nests.

Our minds are full of the human distress, the heart-rending testimonies of mothers and children which we hear daily, and yet, walking through the woods as the birds build their nests, oblivious of our turmoil, I also wondered about the other living communities of Ukraine: the birds, the bees and insects, the wild animals, the fields of golden sunflowers, the whole realm of nature recoiling, and perhaps one day recovering from a human, and inhuman, war. Has “the sparrow still found her a house and the swallow a nest” in some bombed-out church or cathedral?

Suddenly, I found myself remembering “The Stare’s [starling’s] Nest By My Window”, that poignant poem from Yeats’s Meditations in Time of Civil War. Writing by the window of his crumbling Norman tower, itself the monument of previous invasions, and writing at a time of new war, when, as he says later in the poem, “they trundled down the road, That dead young soldier in his blood,” Yeats sees the nest-building, and, even amid destruction, finds an emblem of hope and nurture:

The bees build in the crevices

Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

The very next verse, so apt for Yeats’s time, could be a report from the front lines of our own, could be spoken as much by the besieged in Kyiv as by those who hear their pleas on an English radio — both left bewildered and seemingly helpless by this sudden cataclysm:

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

And still the spring unfolds. Though we are closed in, though “the key is turned, on our uncertainty,” the mother birds still feed their young, the bees build in the crevices, and that same impulse, in the heart of the one life that we share with these creatures, must work in us, to love and nurture, to build again even amid ruins.

Yeats ends his poem with a confession — a confession of those ruinous and brutal fantasies that fuel human violence and warfare, and themselves war against our truest impulses, the ones that come from what Yeats once called “the deep heart’s core”. And so he writes his final verse:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honeybees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Recalling those words, I find myself in prayer, not only for all the mothers of Ukraine who are seeking, like the birds, to nurture their young, but also for all those who, like the indefatigable honey bees, must begin the work again of building amid the ruins a new place of community, something that will yield honey, the sweet nurture of love, even amid such bitterness.

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