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Obituary: The Revd David Scott

by
23 December 2022

A correspondent writes:

THE Revd David Scott was one of the finest poets of his generation, and a much-loved priest whose mi­­nistry was transformative, as the many tributes at his funeral bore witness. Indeed, like George Herbert before him, his poetic gifts and his fruitful Anglican priest­­hood were mutually enfolded, nourishing one another and those around him.

Born in Cambridge in 1947, he trained for the priesthood at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and served as chaplain at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, where he is fondly re­­membered for bring­­­ing something entirely fresh to that post. He won the boys’ hearts, and sometimes alarmed the masters with me­­mor­­able and thought-provoking assem­blies, and with the kind of at­­tractive presence which made him something between a Holy Fool and a Socratic gadfly.

His ministry also took him to Cumbria, in whose landscape he delighted and from whose wild and edgy fells he drew so much poetic inspiration. He later became the Warden of the Winchester Diocesan School of Spir­­ituality, where his insights, and his own spirituality, drawn from an early attraction to Thomas Merton, a deeply held engagement with St Francis, and an immersion in the early Ang­­lican divines, especially Lancelot An­­drewes, flourished and were made richly available in books and personal counsel to so many.

David came to public attention in 1978, when he won the Sunday Times/BBC national poetry competi­­tion with his poem “Kirkwall Auction Mart”. This led to some filming at Keats’s house, and a documentary, “A Private Voice”. He also contributed to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and Poetry Now, besides being a diarist for the Church Times.

A Quiet Gathering, his first book of poems, was published by Blood­­axe Books in 1984, and won him the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1986. His second collection, Playing for Eng­land (1989), was a Poetry Book Society recom­mendation. His 2014 retrospective, Beyond the Drift: New and selected poems, drew on four previous titles, with the ad­­dition of a collection of further poems, some of which explore with poignant honesty his experience of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

David might easily have become a Fran­ciscan friar or a hermit, although, happily for us, he re­­mained in the world to give so much. But there was an almost monastic, eremitic element to the way in which he entered his final years, in a gracefully accepted weak­­ness, both in the care of his wife, Miggy, and in a care home.
He made a quiet but spiritually rich final journey with Christ into the kenosis, the self-emptying, the naughting, which is the prelude to resurrection.

His poetry was read and ap­­preciated well beyond church circles. The clergy among his readers will recognise and be grateful for the quiet way in which his poet’s eye noticed, trans­­figured, and lifted into emblem so many of the seemingly mundane details of life and ministry. In the opening of “Locking the Church”, he evokes an experience many will have shared:


It takes two hands to turn the key
of the church door, and on its stiffest days
needs a piece of iron to work it like a capstan.
I know the key’s weight in the hand
the day begins and ends with it.


But, by the end of the poem, that key has opened far more in us than just the outward church door. His poems, so deft and under­­stated, invite and enable readers to bring their own imagination to bear on all he writes. As he expressed it in this perfect little poem, “Writ­ten In Juice Of Lemon”:


Some poems I write in ink
and they get written with a lot
of furrowing of the brow, and often miss
but some I write in juice of lemon
quickly in my heart
and hope that one day someone’s
warmth will iron the secrets into poems
with effortless art.

His gifts as a poet survived the onset of his illness, and he was able to express, transform, and redeem the confusions and difficulties of his encounter with dementia:


For I’m becoming left-handed in my soul,
learning to push the pen of knowledge
so it smudges all along the page, unclear,
slow, unsure of what it is to know.
At every word: ‘is this the right one?’ Beyond
the drift of language I sense a space I am at home in;
which is the mystery of the heart, wordless, patient,
and wrong. Being right seems insufficient now.


“Beyond the Drift”, from which that poem comes, was reviewed by Ronald Blythe in the Church Times (Books, 28 November 2014); Dr Blythe was entirely right in saying: “With this volume . . . David Scott has some claim to be the Church of England’s finest living poet.”

Although, in one sense, he is no longer among us as a living poet, in another, he is fully alive to us, as he himself was alive to language. Any­­one who reads his poetry now and in the future will find a living voice that speaks gently into the mystery of all our living, both here and hereafter.

The Revd David Scott died on 21 October, aged 75.

Read Malcolm Guite’s tribute here

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