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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

18 August 2023

After being followed by Bath Abbey, Malcolm Guite decided to return the favour with a visit

SOME years ago, when I first ventured onto social media at the behest of my students, in the days when Twitter felt more like a shared enterprise, a public square, a collective common-place book, and less like a plutocrat’s digital plaything, the following message suddenly popped up on my phone: “You are being followed by Bath Abbey!”

Unfamiliar with Twitter’s particular turns of phrase, I had visions for a moment of the great Abbey church approaching silently, gliding up the road behind me in stealthy pursuit; and, almost involuntarily, I glanced over my shoulder. I could imagine some wild Chestertonian tale, or, perhaps, a Monty Python sketch, in which the hero, pursued by the great gothic edifice dodges down a narrow alley thinking, “It’ll never fit down here,” only to find, as he emerges at the other end of the alley, that his retreat has been cut off and the great west door of Bath Abbey is wide open to receive him. Of course, I am now more familiar with Twitter’s sense of the word follow, and am quite sanguine about being followed by several cathedrals, as well as the Abbey church.

I recall this episode because I have been a couple of days in Bath, and have finally seen Bath Abbey for myself, Happily, I came round a corner just as the westering sun was flooding the west wall with glorious golden light, making that already gold-coloured Bath stone even more breathtakingly beautiful.

I was describing all this to my wife, Maggie, over the phone that evening, and she told me that she had seen it in just such evening beauty years ago, when she was a sixth-former visiting Bath with her parents. They had gone to evensong at the Abbey, and, just as they were singing “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended” at the end of the service, the doors were opened wide and the evening sun sent beams of golden light into the Abbey, illuminating everything both outwardly and inwardly. Maggie told me that she had never forgotten it, a little epiphany that sometimes came back to her mind when she most needed it.

Thinking of how that memory had persisted in her over all the intervening years, I realised that there was a sense, undreamed of by Mr Musk, in which one might indeed be “followed” by an abbey or a cathedral, that the place might so impress itself on memory, might so nurture the growing soul, that it does indeed follow us and minister to us for the rest of our days; follow us in the sense of that other great hymn: “Goodness and mercy all my life Shall surely follow me.”

In that sense, I am lucky to be followed not just by Bath Abbey, but by a host of beautiful places, where, in one way or another, something permanent was disclosed in the midst of the temporal. The day after I left Bath, I visited Tintern Abbey, and recalled Wordsworth’s famous lines written there, lines about revisiting a place whose memory was already visiting and sustaining him. Wordsworth puts better than anyone what such memories of beauty can do for us:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration. . .

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