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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

04 March 2022

As the world darkens, Malcolm Guite looks to C. S. Lewis for wisdom

I WAS going to write about that morning I came down to the River Dart, down to the splashing, darting, sparkling waters that Ted Hughes called his “champagne river”. I was going to write about coming down, on a crisp February morning, the air brightened and cleansed from the storms, down from the folds of an ancient combe, in the company of a renowned Devonian storyteller, down to the very spot that Hughes loved to fish. I was going to tell you how, standing above the surge of the river, the endless beautiful reshaping of its currents and cataracts, its sheer continuance of form amid the constant change of its content, I had recalled the opening lines of Hughes’s beautiful poem “That Morning”:

We came where the salmon were so many
So steady, so spaced, so far-aimed
On their inner map. . .

I was going to write about how I, too, for a moment, felt the same sense of epiphany as Hughes had felt, standing there “in the pollen light”, “lifted . . . towards some dazzle of blessing”.

I was going to write that; but when I came home to put pen to paper, it seemed as though the world had changed and darkened, and that Devon morning, only two days before, was just a distant dream. For I had come home to the news of war, to the missiles flying and the tanks rolling across Ukraine, the tyrant’s fist crushing and closing on a nation’s freedom. How could I write, in such a moment, about poetry and fishing?

And then, as from some half-remembered depth, came the words of C. S. Lewis, words from a sermon that he preached in Oxford in December of 1939, as tanks rolled across Europe and frightened and bewildered students gathered in the church of St Mary the Virgin, asking themselves the very questions that Lewis posed in the opening of his sermon, variants of the question I was asking myself now: “What is the use”, Lewis asked from the pulpit, “of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? . . . why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”

So, I returned to that sermon, later published under the title “Learning in War-Time”, and found it to be as full of wisdom for our moment in history as it was for his. At the core of it is a call to do everything as on a precipice, to do everything only because it is intrinsically worth doing, and all the more so because it might be the last thing we do; to do everything, from crafting a poem, to defending a city, to the glory of God:

“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow. . . [We] propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem whilst advancing to the walls of Quebec. . .”

So I resume my original task, letting poetry lighten even the darkest hour, and share with you the end of Hughes’s great poem:

So we found the end of our journey.
So we stood, alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

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