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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

29 July 2022

Will extreme weather events serve as a wake-up call, asks Malcolm Guite

I WAS reflecting last week on the pleasure of retreating on a hot day to cooling streams, reflecting on time itself as a stream on which we might float, reflecting on the simple pleasure of “messing about in boats” (22 July). But, even as I drifted away and left “the false clocks with their little steps” behind, England was burning. The record-breaking heat had led to destructive fires not only in London, but all around the country, several of them in Norfolk.

Watching the news that evening, it was as though those distant but devastating Australian fires that we watched in horror at the beginning of 2020 — and then promptly forgot about, because the pandemic was upon us — had returned, but this time so much closer to home. At least we are not distracted now, and at last our attention is focused on extreme weather events that can be described only as a wake-up call.

It was in 2019, before either plague or fire had come so close to us, that I was asked by the brilliant young composer Rhiannon Randle to write a poem that she might set as an anthem for an eco-themed evensong (Choral Eco-Song, I think they called it). We both felt that the church needed prayerfully to address the crisis of climate change, and to express those concerns in her liturgy.

Notwithstanding the special theme, we were still following the standard lectionary, but how prescient and telling the lectionary readings for that particular evensong proved to be! For they both enjoined us to wake up: we had God’s call to us through Isaiah: “Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!” (Isaiah 51.17) and Jesus’s words to the disciples in Gethsemane: “Keep awake and pray” (Mark 14.38). Together, they seemed to me to form a divine wake-up call.

What emerged as I began writing was not a discursive poem, or a moral admonition, but a long cry of the earth herself — a direct appeal to us from nature, which Rhiannon set powerfully as a choir anthem. The anthem was sung at St Michael’s, Cornhill, in February of 2020, when wildfires were only in distant countries, and 40ºC was unthinkable in England.

I call it to mind again now — not to add to choruses of doom, but, on the contrary, because, when I revisited the poem, I found that, although it voices a great lament, it actually ends with a real hope: a hope that our Emmanuel, our God with us, will join his voice to the voice of the earth, will move by his Spirit to rouse us, even so late in the day, to repentance and to change for good:

Our Burning World

Our burning world is turning in despair,
I hear her seething, sighing through the air:
“Oh, rouse yourself, this is your wake-up call
For your pollution forms my funeral pall.
My last ice lapses, slips into the sea,
Will you unfreeze your tears and weep with me?
Or are you sleeping still, taking your rest?
The hour has come, that puts you to the test,
Wake up to change at last, and change for good,
Repent, return, re-plant the sacred wood.
You are my children, I too am God’s child,
And we have both together been defiled,
But God hangs with us, on the hallowed tree
That we might both be rescued, both be free.”

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