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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

24 February 2023

The appearance of snowdrops reminds Malcolm Guite that spring is not far away

SNOWDROPS have begun to appear, gathered timorously by the trunks of the trees in Sadlers Wood, perhaps hoping for a bit more shelter there — and some have even courageously appeared on roadside verges, harbingers of better things to come.

“Snowdrop” is itself a lovely name, not least because the appearance of the snowdrops, even in some thaw of February snow, is itself a sign that the snow and its freezing season cannot last for ever. It is as though the snow itself were being turned into flowers, transmuted into spring. But I like the snowdrop’s other folk names, too: Candlemas Bells, Fair Maids of February, White Ladies.

Candlemas Bells is especially good, as Candlemas itself, with its focus on Christ as the light of the world, comes rightly, along with the snowdrops, just towards the turn of the year when, however, imperceptibly, the light begins to lengthen.

So, I see the tender snowdrops, bowing their heads demurely, and my spirit lifts. They look down, but I look up, and say with Walter de la Mare:

Blow, northern wind; fall snow;
And thou — my loved and dear,
See, in this waste of burthened cloud
How Spring is near!

Indeed, de la Mare wrote a strange and rather mystical poem about looking closely at a snowdrop: a poem in which he comes closest, as a poet, to gesturing towards the Trinity.

He stoops low down and sees at eye level the crystalline frost on the grass:

A northern wind had frozen the grass;
Its blades were hoar with crystal rime,
Aglint like light-dissecting glass
At beam of morning prime.

And then, observing the snowdrop closely, he notices, twice, its threefold form:

From hidden bulb the flower reared up
Its angled, slender, cold, dark stem,
Whence dangled an inverted cup
For tri-leaved diadem.

Beneath these ice-pure sepals lay
A triplet of green-pencilled snow,
Which in the chill-aired gloom of day
Stirred softly to and fro.

Then, after this precise and lucid observation of the flower itself, comes a moment when he feels that he is lost to his body, and he calls to his soul, and finds that he shares some consciousness with all things, including the snowdrop:

Mind fixed, but else made vacant, I,
Lost to my body, called my soul
To don that frail solemnity,
Its inmost self my goal.

And though in vain — no mortal mind
Across that threshold yet hath fared! —
In this collusion I divined
Some consciousness we shared.

It is an extraordinary turn for a poem that starts so simply and so clearly in the natural or material frame. But this is how it ends:

Strange roads — while suns, a myriad, set —
Had led us through infinity;
And where they crossed, there then had met
Not two of us, but three.

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