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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

26 January 2024

As he walks in Sadlers Wood, Malcolm Guite recalls a poem that evokes winter’s essence

IT HAS been bitterly cold of late — proper winter weather. I’m tempted, of course, to stay a little longer in bed, pull the bedclothes higher, and postpone my morning walk, taken, alas! no longer with George our amiable greyhound; for he finally succumbed to a cancer at the end of last year and was gathered to his long fathers.

With no dog to urge me on, I linger a little longer; but eventually, fortified by a cup of tea, warmly clothed, wrapped in my beloved great coat, I set off for Sadler’s wood. And, once I’m walking, the rewards for having made the effort are ample. The low, bright winter sun sparkling on the frosted gardens, pavements, and hedges, one’s own breath rising visibly like clouds of Epiphany incense, and, just ahead, the prospect of the woods themselves. Only a week ago, the rains had left the woodland lanes impassably muddy; but now even the mud is frozen and rimed with frost, and the ground, once soggy, is crisp underfoot and sparkling.

And then there are the trees. Yeats famously opened a poem with the line “The trees are in their autumn beauty.” Their autumn beauty is, of course, easy to see and to celebrate. But there would be something to be said for a poem that began “The trees are in their winter beauty.” Rather than celebrate the rich red-gold, the final flourish of all that foliage, it would celebrate, instead, the unveiling of branches, the revelation of a tree’s inner form, the graceful gestures and patterning of the inner tree, the deep grip of roots, the tenacity of life.

Mind you, there are poets who can evoke the essence of winter just as well as autumn. John Keats is one of them; indeed, the opening lines of “The Eve of St Agnes” came back to me on that walk as I headed out of the wood and across the frozen grass:

St. Agnes’ Eve — Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold.

It is the close observation of detail which makes those lines so effective: we feel the cold through the other creatures who endure it with us: the limping hare, the owl still cold beneath his feathers. Only then does Keats move on to how we feel it, with his description of prayer in a freezing chapel, a scene that will be only too familiar to many with duties to perform in a church building:

Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze. . .
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

All that brilliant evocation of freezing January is, of course, by way of prelude and contrast to the tale of warm love and romance which Keats is about to tell. All the freezing and ice will be answered by a sudden spring-within-winter, when love is fulfilled, and the key word, as Keats delicately evokes the consummation of their passion, is “melted”:

Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet, —
Solution sweet.

Returning from my walk, with phrases from Keats’s poem still singing in my mind, I turn to my own prayers — fortunately, in a warm study, and not a freezing chapel — only to find from the lectionary that today is, as it happens, St Agnes’s Eve.

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