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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

02 December 2022

Pausing during a walk in the woods, Malcolm Guite ponders a phrase of Wendell Berry’s

MOST mornings, I walk into the woods, and, in a clearing in their the midst, I pause to contemplate, or smoke a pipe, or both. Brief gleams of fugitive November sunlight occasionally break through the clouds and light the lichen-covered boles of the trees, adding a gleam of gold to their rich deep green; and, sometimes, a pool of light briefly blesses the red and gold carpet of birch leaves, and they shimmer like spilled treasure. I try to hold the moment, to absorb something of the stillness of the trees that stand around me, to enter into what Wendell Berry, in one of his Sabbath poems, calls their “standing Sabbath”:

Another Sunday morning comes

And I resume the standing Sabbath
Of the woods, where the finest blooms
Of time return. . .

But, even as I savour the moment, its slips away. I know I shouldn’t follow it, but should remain, if I can, in “the now”. In one of the Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes about the way we live in time, and are tempted out of the only reality, which is the present moment, tempted to dwell in nostalgia for the past or fear for the future; but, as Lewis says, “The past is frozen and no longer flows, but the present is all lit up with golden rays, the present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

I wonder whether he was thinking of Boethius (one of his favourite authors), who speaks of eternity not as an endless iteration of minutes, but as a nunc stans, an eternal now. That, I sense, is part of what Wendell Berry meant by that memorable phrase “the standing Sabbath of the woods”. He plays, of course, on the fact that the trees themselves stand to their sabbath, but also, perhaps, on the idea that their sabbath, unlike ours, “stands” and does not retreat, but remains, as they stand giving God glory, and he, in his eternal Sabbath, contemplates them, and proclaims that they and his whole creation are good.

But for us, alas, the moment “in and out of time”, as Eliot called it, comes and goes, and we are left with “the waste sad time, stretching before and after”.

When, in my sequence David’s Crown, I came to write my response to Psalm 137, the great lament of exile, I didn’t know till I began, to which sense of exile I would respond; but it turned out to be the exile from eternity, which is part of our experience of time, for we live super flumina, and “time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away”:

CXXXVII Super flumina

That we might find in Christ complete assurance
We still recall these stories of the past,
For in them is the pattern and persistence

Of our long exile from the things that last.
For we live super flumina: time flows
Away from us, and all we prize is lost

The moment we attain it, like the rose
That shows eternity yet fades and falls.
So all our songs and music still disclose

The tragedy of time. The voice that calls
Us from eternity must always make
An elegy. We beat against time’s walls,

For this is Babylon. Our captors take
The best in us the moment it is born.
But Babylon will fall! We will awake!

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