Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

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THE other evening, I found myself straying through the lovely churchyard of St Mary’s, Linton, with its path between rows of ancient yews, its further reaches bordered by light woods on one side and the clear flowing stream of the Granta on the other; and its many gravestones and memorials, most of them mottled, lichen-covered, their inscriptions and outlines not so much fading as greening, deepening, somehow merging with the soil in which they stand, the place in which they are planted.

I paused there, just to savour the twilight, the shimmer of shadow and light, the patter of leaves, and found both the place and the time had summoned unbidden the resonant lines of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchard”:

 

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds. . .

 

Certainly, there was a rich hush, and I could see in Linton, just as Gray had done in Stoke Poges:

 

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

 

But, of course, Gray, in that poem, goes on to challenge his own phrase about “the rude forefathers of the hamlet”, and to wonder what might have been achieved by so many who were denied education and opportunity in his unequal society. He thinks of some “village-Hampden”, or “mute inglorious Milton”, who never ruled or wrote because

 

Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

 

As I stood there, I reflected that, even though more than 270 years have passed since Gray stood in the twilight of a country churchyard, and even though the education and literacy for which he was pleading are so much more widespread, it is still true that “chill penury” holds back and denies opportunity to so many — perhaps more so now than when I first read and loved this poem 40 years ago.

As Gray’s memorable and sonorous lines continued to unroll in my mind, my reflections took another turn. His poem is not only a eulogy for the excluded poor, but also, as one might expect, a moving memento mori, an unflinching and chastened attention to mortality of the kind that is almost forbidden now:

 

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

 

Yet as these lines sounded through my mind, and I gazed around, in the last of the light, at the many graves all mossed and green in this lovely place, I had a sense not of morbidity, or of melancholy, but of richness, of fullness. The contemplation of finitude only deepened my sense of plenitude, of the sheer and undeserved abundance of my being here: a sense that all of it must be savoured: this churchyard in “the viridian darkness of its yews”, the little stream I would cross as I left, and, beyond it, an opening door and the welcoming light of home.

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