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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

21 July 2023

Malcolm Guite sets sail from Byzantium, in the footsteps of the great apostle

A SUMMER holiday has brought me and Maggie to Istanbul: a first for both of us. And, for me, the city is charged with, informed, and made luminous by its earlier names: Constantinople and Byzantium. I felt contrast but no contradiction between the spacious immensity of the Hagia Sophia, on the one hand, and the crowded bustling mazes of the Grand Bazaar, on the other, any more than between the contemplative and the active life; for the one supports the other.

No contradiction, either, but, rather, continuity, between the past, with all its illustrious names, and the present, with all its political turmoil, its tension between Eastern and Western views of the world, and between tradition and innovation; for the same tensions were there in earlier periods, too, however golden and permanent they seem from this distance in time.

We were there to join a ship that would be sailing west, across the sea of Marmora, through the Dardanelles, the Hellespont that Byron swam, and out into the Aegean to follow in the wake and footsteps of St Paul.

Since we would be sailing from Byzantium, my mind was naturally full of echoes of Yeats’s great poem “Sailing to Byzantium”. Yeats brought to his imaginary voyage his desire to “gather me, Into the artifice of eternity”, to stand for a moment with the “sages standing in God’s holy fire, As in the gold mosaic of a wall”.

He was only too conscious, as he wrote those lines, that he was an “aged man . . . a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick”; and yet he knew that, for all that, the soul might still, on a sudden, “clap its hands and sing”.

I write this on board ship, sailing from Byzantium, astonished by the continuities of history, passing through the narrow strait of the Hellespont, and the narrow isthmus of our own time, with the legend of Troy on my left and the tragedy of Gallipoli on my right; and, behind me, somewhere up there on the edge of the Black Sea, the present tragedy of the Ukrainian war, another tug between East and West.

And yet the man I am really following on this voyage, the great apostle, embraced all those contradictions, between time and eternity, East and West, and added to them: slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female; embraced them all and found them resolved and reconciled, made into a new creation, in Christ.

Now, sailing in Paul’s wake, I revisit some of the paradoxes which his life and witness exhibited and resolved, and which I once gathered into this sonnet:

St Paul

An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the Law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw —
The glory of the Lord in Jesus’ face;
Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by Love, who freed him from his chains.

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