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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

28 January 2022

A discovery in the Pacific inspires Malcolm Guite with poetic thoughts

IT WAS a relief, listening, the other morning, to the Today programme, to be taken for a while out of the shallow and murky waters of British politics and into the pristine depths of the Pacific, and to hear that, off the coast of Tahiti, divers have discovered, at unusual depth, a perfectly formed reef of rose-shaped corals.

“It was magical to witness giant, beautiful rose corals, which stretch for as far as the eye can see. It was like a work of art,” said the French photographer Alexis Rosenfeld, who led the team of international divers who made the discovery.

I’ve always loved coral. From my childhood memories of Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (the innocent progenitor of Golding’s darker book) to the beautiful pictures of angel fish flitting among the reefs in Something Rich and Strange, Robert E. Schroeder’s book on night diving, which inspired my teenage years and made me want to be a marine biologist, there was a coral strand running through my imagination. When I turned from biology to the less demanding vocation of poetry, there was still a magical aura about the word “coral”, there in the passage of The Tempest to which Schroeder’s title alludes:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

suggests, hauntingly, that, amid the corals and the pearls, there is some rich transformation, even in death, of our own humanity: a foretaste of resurrection. And that, of course, is the theme of the play; for, as in a baptism, that mimesis of death and resurrection, all who seemed drowned in the tempest are miraculously drawn from the waters and restored to life again.

So, to hear on the radio the description of these magical rose corals already summoned many echoes and images in my head. These distant rose shapes in the deep evoked for me Yeats’s early invocation:

Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose,
Enfold me in my hour of hours; where those
Who sought thee in the Holy Sepulchre,
Or in the wine-vat, dwell beyond the stir
And tumult of defeated dreams; and deep. . .

And so we find another rose in the deep.

Later, I looked up the story online, and saw a wonderful film of little fish flitting in and out of the “petals” as divers glided above the vast and yet delicate multifoliate roses of coral, rose-shaped and rose-red in the diver’s lights. It was marvellous and actual — and all of it unbleached, uncorroded, as yet untouched by climate change; for the reef lies deep enough to be protected from the bleaching effects of the warming ocean.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but there is something wonderful about how another life, the living, growing creature that is the coral, can take on that same shape and suggest to us, even in the cold depths, the gentle exhalations of a summer’s day.

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