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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

16 December 2022

As Christmas songs interrupt Advent, Malcolm Guite turns to George Herbert

IT IS the time of year when I hurry through the shops, wishing I had earplugs, desperate to escape the tinny Christmas playlists that, I know, will still form little earworms in me for the rest of the day. In spite of my best endeavours, I always end up with “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away”, by Wham!, playing on an endless loop, as I sit at my desk, the inane repetitions scaring off those shy poems that I was hoping to entice on to the page.

I suppose I could repurpose the song as it plays in my head, and turn it into prayer: “This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special. . .” But, to be honest, giving my heart to Christ may have saved me from perdition, but it has never saved me from tears; for the thing about giving one’s heart to Christ is that he keeps it supple, sensitive, full of hope, and therefore susceptible to hurt. And “hope deferred maketh the heart sick.”

It would be easier to be cynical, easier to cheat disappointment by expecting nothing. Yet Advent — still Advent, in spite of the Christmas jingles — is all about expectation, about daring to hope again. The Latin root of “expectation” means “looking out”, as though you looked out of a window for the long-delayed return of your beloved. George Herbert plays on that, but reverses, beautifully, the flow of the gaze; for, in his poem “Christmas (1)”, it is Christ himself who is looking out from the window of the inn, expecting Herbert:

I took up in the next inne I could finde,

There when I came, whom found I but my deare,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there
To be all passengers’ most sweet relief?

I’m not likely to hear Herbert’s “Christmas” on the festive playlists in Boots, although he was a dab hand at music, and a little lute music, or a madrigal, would make a nice break from Wham! and Mariah Carey.

But I still find, along with Herbert, some “sweet relief”, some companionship, in knowing that, if my hope is deferred, then so is Christ’s. God knows the disappointments that I have visited on Christ, the deferral of his hopes in me which he has had to cope with till I turn and return, let alone the vulnerable hope that he places in millions of others. But he has not given up; he still keeps hoping, still expecting, looking out for us. Maybe those Wham! lyrics, still running round my head, have more to say than I thought: “I keep my distance, but you still catch my eye, Tell me . . . do you recognise me?”

We have so many stratagems for keeping our distance, but, somehow, even amid the tinsel, he can still catch our eye, still give us that come-hither look. And then, however slowly, we might turn, we might move, from expectation to recognition.

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