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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 March 2024

Dipping back into The Wind in the Willows, Malcolm Guite discovers new delights

IT IS always a pleasure to dip back into a children’s classic. The really great children’s books become a permanent possession, part of the groundwork of one’s sensibility and imagination, essential pieces in the furniture of one’s mind. So, there is pleasure in taking off the dust covers and seeing them pristine again.

But there is something paradoxical about the experience. One has, at one and the same time, all the comforts of returning to the familiar, and also, almost always, the thrill of discovering something new; for these books are, on the one hand, enshrined in our childhood, but, on the other, because they are great works of literature, they grow with us. As adults, we see and enjoy so much we might have missed as children.

So it was for me on returning, today, to The Wind in the Willows. I was supposed to be answering emails, but some slightly warmer breath of the March wind at my window tempted me to close the computer and go for a walk instead. As I enjoyed the first airs of spring, the sun dappling Sadlers Wood with the shadows of stirring trees, and the sound of so many birds, unseen above me, singing for the sheer joy of it, I had a sense not so much of déjà vu as of some example or pattern to which I was gladly conforming. And then it came to me: I was just like Mole, who suddenly says “Hang spring-cleaning!” and “bolts out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat”.

So, of course, when I got back, I didn’t open up the emails and spring-clean my inbox: I opened up the first page of The Wind in the Willows, and there my eyes fell on the sentence: “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”

I had completely forgotten that the essential spiritual term “divine discontent” had first met my eyes not in a work of theology, but in this little children’s book. I can’t remember what I made of those words as a six-year-old, but, as a 66-year-old, I know that the phrase “divine discontent” goes right to the heart of my spiritual life, and is the wellspring of my poetry.

As I read on, I had all the nostalgic warmth of relishing the familiar phrases, the language so rich that you can almost taste it: “So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’”

But, reading that whole episode of Mole’s divine discontent, of his impetuous ascent through the earth, and of the moment when “his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow,” I found myself understanding, or at least being able to articulate, far more than I did when I was a child.

That sudden realisation of the bright beauty of an upper world, that “something up above was calling him imperiously,” now spoke to me of far more than a spring day by a river; for I read it now in the light of Plato’s myth of the cave, and the soul’s ascent to the light, and even more in the light of that descent and ascent of Life and Light himself which we shall celebrate at Easter.

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