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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

31 March 2023

What advice would he give his 19-year-old self, Malcolm Guite asks on a visit to Cambridge

I RETURNED to Cambridge the other day, to preach at Trinity College. It was a joy to revisit the city where I have spent so much of my life. I tried, in all my Cambridge years, not to take the place for granted, still to be astonished by its beauty, its history, the long continuous succession of its academic and literary life. Moving away gave me some perspective on what I had been privileged to share, and returning renewed my sense of wonder.

There is a particular pleasure in walking through the gates of Trinity into that glorious, spacious Great Court. There is something significant about such surprising spaciousness set within the college itself: a roofless space held open to the sun and stars by a curtilage of buildings, which are themselves smaller and roofed and enclosed.

So it is also with the life of the mind: the academic institutions, the schools, and the universities are like the buildings that surround and make up that Great Court, each with its own style and history, but each also limited and defined by the walls and roofs of its particular discipline and tradition.

But they are not there simply to contain and organise the knowledge of the past, all that has been accumulated so far. They are there to preserve, to hold between them, and to defend that far greater space that also stands, like the Trinity Great Court, open, empty, roofless, apparently useless. But that open, empty space, unroofed, open to light from the furthest star, that space is the space of the mind itself in all its life and growth, ready to be explored and expanded further, open to every new thought and possibility — a place, as they say in Cambridge, for “blue-sky thinking”.

Governments and administrations are, of course, always trying to fill up that open space with a clutter of temporary practicalities, measurable objectives, and predetermined “learning outcomes”, as though a university were just a factory for churning out economically productive technocrats. But, still, in spite of all, the Great Court lies open and empty, both in its outward and visible form, and in its inward and intellectual meaning.

I was to preach the final sermon of the Lent term, and my theme, I was told, was to be the advice that I would give to my former student self, if I could travel back as I am now and speak to him. An impossible task, of course, not least because I would have to ask: “To which of my former student selves would I be speaking?” For I came up to Cambridge thinking that I knew everything, and I left knowing that I knew almost nothing. I came up a closed-minded atheist, and left an open-minded Christian. I came up, as I thought, already an ardent poet, and left knowing that I was a mere beginner in the humble craft of fitting words together.

Also, it occurred to me that, even if I were to travel back as a grey-haired 65-year-old, collar my 19-year-old self, and sit him down for my supposedly wise words, was there any chance that he would listen? He had already ignored so much sage advice from his elders and betters.

So, I thought it more practical to ask in my sermon: what advice would all my growing, changing, student selves give to me now? I think that it would amount to something like this: “Don’t settle, don’t get stuck, don’t rest on laurels. Keep growing, keep thinking, keep asking, keep changing.” It is advice that might be summed up in St Paul’s words: “Do not be conformed to this world but rather be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind. . .”

Listen to Malcolm Guite’s reflections and sonnets for Holy Week here

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