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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

04 August 2023

Back from his travels, Malcolm Guite relishes the pleasures of returning home

IF ONE of the great pleasures of travel is the excitement of setting off, another, surely, is the comfort of coming home. Wonderful as it was to see the classical ruins at Ephesus, or the sun set over Mount Athos, I find just as much pleasure in reacquainting myself with Sadlers Wood, the scene of my daily walks, with its beautiful beech trees and, a little higher on its ridge, its austere Scots Pines. I enjoy them all the more for the contrast with the vines and olive groves I have left.

My little writing hut, likewise, could not be in greater contrast with the classical columns and arches I have been visiting. Even the cabin in the ship in which I travelled was altogether better appointed; for my writing hut is, after all, only a glorified garden shed. But it has my pipes, my memories, my manuscripts, and greets me like an old friend — and, better still, an old friend to whom I can tell new stories.

These pleasures of return have called to mind a classic passage in Chesterton’s introduction to his great book Orthodoxy: “I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. . . His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for.

“What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?. . . What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realise, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales.”

Chesterton sets up this story of an unexpected return having all the thrill of discovery, because that was his actual experience of his return to Christianity while writing Orthodoxy. Having written a critique of the imperialists, jingoists, and materialists of his day — Kipling, Wells, et al. — under the title Heretics, Chesterton was challenged to set out his own idea of a contrasting orthodoxy, and discovered, to his surprise, that it turned out to be the Christian faith that he thought he, and his contemporaries, had left behind.

As he goes on to say: “But I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. . . I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. . . I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. . . I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

My return has a similar thrill of rediscovery; for, after my journey, in the wake of St Paul (21 July, 28 July), the perhaps over-familiar pages of Acts and the Pauline epistles are suddenly fresh and vivid: real places of blazing sun, hot stone, grateful shade, white marble, blue sky, and ever-changing sea.

On my return, the old stories are fresh again — and, more than fresh, they are bodied forth, made flesh, freshly incarnate.

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