Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.
I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.
We forget ‒ I kept saying ‒ that we are children of the King.
From where we come there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was and will be.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago ‒
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef ‒ they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfilment.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
Malcolm Guite reads today’s poem
It is tempting to envision our lives as sand in an hourglass, steadily draining away until it is ultimately concluded in emptiness. The folly of this reasoning can only be remedied by seeing the world through God’s eyes – sub specie aeternitatis – under the aspect of eternity. As redeemed souls with everlasting life, our journey is one of transition, yes, but more akin to fresh adventure than sad, gradual decline. In Christ, our life is renewed daily, and our context is that which is eternally true, without reference to or dependence upon the temporal portions of reality.
In The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite says this:
Late Ripeness is just such a work. ‘I entered the clarity of early morning’ is not only an account of the poet himself, but an invitation to the reader, to walk through the door the poet ‘felt opening in me’. The departing ‘former lives’, are not, I think the imagined former lives of some re-incarnation, but rather the accumulated layers of the many lives we all live, wrapped around one another and crammed into one life time. But in this poem they are disentangled and let go, ‘departing/like ships, together with their sorrow’. And this clearing, or opening, is not a preparation to face nothingness or death, as it might have been with a poet like, for example, Phillip Larkin, but rather a readying and steadying of the mind for new work, as everything that has been, in his lovely phrase, ‘assigned to my brush’ comes closer. It’s worth reflecting on the idea that certain things, and certain things only have been ‘assigned to our brush’, given to us to work with, know and describe. It reminds me strongly of the prayer-book petition that we should ‘do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in’. Most of us are under pressure, external and internal, to do everything, be good at everything, be accountable to everyone for everything! It is not so. In the divine economy, each of us has a particular grace, gift, and devotion. Learning what that is, and learning how to be guilt-free about not doing everything else may be part of what our Lenten journey is for.
What fresh adventure has God revealed to you most recently?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
Literature & Liturgy: Malcolm Guite and The Word in the Wilderness
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
Photo: Lancia Smith
The Word in the Wilderness
A poem a day for Lent, Holy week and Easter
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.