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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

28 March 2024

Writing sonnets about the resurrection is a daunting task, says Malcolm Guite

IT WAS once suggested to C. S. Lewis that he should write a sequel to his bestselling Screwtape Letters: letters from an older to a younger devil about how to tempt humans. The sequel, it was suggested, should be from an archangel to a guardian angel on how to nudge human beings heavenward. Lewis replied that he’d had the same idea, but it was beyond him. To write as a devil, he had only to look down the incline of his own fallen nature, and let it descend a little further; but to write as an angel would mean an ascent, a heavenly perspective, which he had not yet attained and could scarcely imagine.

There is a parallel difficulty in turning from the Passion to write about the resurrection. We understand Good Friday only too well: the suffering and compassion it reveals, and the human capacity for cruelty and evil to which it also bears witness.

But the resurrection is another thing altogether. We read the accounts of those who witnessed it, we glimpse its forerunners and emblems in every dawn, in every spring, in every plant that grows from the buried seed. But these latter are all analogies; resurrection itself — the mystery at once of the empty tomb and the spiritual body, transfigured and yet still a body — this is a reality that breaks down all our usual categories and always eludes the net of words with which we try to catch it.

Perhaps that’s why, in my collection Sounding the Seasons, I had 14 sonnets on the Passion and only one on the resurrection. But I was invited to redress the balance and contribute 19 sonnets to Stations of the Resurrection, a new book that offers reflections on all the New Testament accounts of the resurrection.

The most daunting sonnet, for me, was the first in the sequence: Matthew 28.2-4. What are we to make of the dramatic double-event of the earthquake and the angel? It seemed to me that in this cataclysmic meeting of heaven and earth — something far more dramatic than Jacob’s comparatively peaceful ladder — there was a chance to wrestle with the problem: to write about the earthly things that we know only too well — the hurts and griefs, the shadow of death — but not to end there, to allow the turn or volta of the sonnet to open it all up to that lightning bolt of heaven: the descending angel. This approach to that first sonnet was a key that opened all the others. It came out like this:

Each human life hangs taut between the powers
Of heaven and of earth. Our soaring hearts
Yearn heavenward, even as the weighted hours
Of gravity and time, heavy with hurts
And griefs too great to number, pull us down
And seal us at the last in one black tomb
Against whose entrance rolls the heavy stone.

But from this day that tomb becomes a womb
The earth is shaking with her labour pain.
Our Life-Light quickens with the coming dawn.
To help us now the powers of heaven come down,
Time’s tyrant prison guards have watched in vain
An angel-midwife rolls away the stone
And from the tomb the Kingdom is reborn.

Stations of the Resurrection is published by Church House Publishing at £13.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.59); 978-1-78140-453-9.

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