‘Something understood’: English poet Malcolm Guite on prayer, priesthood and sonnets

"I don’t think of my priestly vocation as one thing and my poetic vocation as another. I think of them really as two aspects of the same vocation," says the Rev. Malcolm Guite. Photo: Contributed
By on February 6, 2020

The Rev. Malcolm Guite is an English poet and musician. He is an ordained Anglican priest, a chaplain and teacher at Girton College, University of Cambridge, and has written nine books—including five books of poetry. His sonnets have been praised by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as having “economy and pungency,” offering “deep resources for prayer and meditation to the reader.”

His most recent collection of poetry, After Prayer, was released through Canterbury Press in October and begins with a series of sonnets responding to George Herbert’s poem “Prayer.” In advance of Herbert’s feast day February 27, the Journal spoke to Guite about his poetic influences and how his art and faith work together in his life. This interview has been edited for length.

You’re a priest, poet, a musician, a chaplain. How do all those different things fit together in your life?

In a sense they’re all sort of linked—particularly the songs and the poems, although it’s a different kind of writing. When you’re writing a poem, in a sense the language itself has to carry its own music with it. You have to think more fully about metre and the sound of it, whereas obviously if you’re writing a song, you’ve got the melody to do some of the meaning for you.

Unlike many contemporary poets, I’m very interested in reviving and using the old forms—the sonnet, the villanelle, using metre. I don’t want to write archaically; I don’t want to write a sort of Shakespeare pastiche. So I’m using modern language and, I hope, reasonably modern syntax. But I’m still trying to preserve the beauty of the form of a thing like a sonnet or a terza rima or a villanelle.

When did you start writing poetry?

I had various phases. I started writing poetry with a great intensity in my late teens, as one does—partly kind of inspired, in fact, by Keats. What I was attracted to immediately was the sound of Keats: the very, very beautiful, mellifluous sound, a kind of music in the language itself—I’ve always tried to retain that. So I wrote a lot of quite splurge-y, intense adolescent poetry. But that was also when I started to experiment with sonnets. I wrote a few sonnets and those are the only things of that period that, in a sense, survive.

I carried on as an undergraduate student at university, but then I [became] a teacher. I found that full-time teaching in a regular state high school did not leave a lot of time for writing poetry. So the creative side of me flowed into playing guitar, blues guitar—but mainly comic blues; I used to make up topical blues songs about the life of the school.

While I was teaching, I felt I needed to sort of rekindle my academic life and deepen my faith a bit, so I began a PhD about John Donne, the English poet, and Lancelot Andrewes, who was a sort of older contemporary of his. It was about how their preaching influenced the poetry of T.S. Eliot. While I was working on that, I became deeply attracted to Donne, and through Donne the other priest-poets, including George Herbert, who has now become a very significant person for me.

In the course of studying them, really, I began to discern that I might have a vocation in myself to priesthood. I couldn’t see many sort of priests or vicars in the church that it was then, looking around me, that looked or felt remotely like me! But on the other hand, in these two figures from the late 16th, early 17th century—both Anglicans, both priests and poets—I found two distinctly compelling figures. So I began to test vocation, and indeed, that vocation was confirmed by the church.

I studied and came back to Cambridge to do theology, having done English, and then was ordained in 1990.

In a sense the poet in me was partly expressed and fulfilled just simply by being a priest. If you think, as a poet you’re trying to get in ordered shape a succession of words which will be transformative for the people who take them up into their hearts and minds and change things, well, of course that’s exactly what liturgy does. There’s a sense in which at the end of every communion service more was happening through beautiful language than I could have ever done in a poem anyway.

After about seven years, doing very hard work without giving myself a lot of time for renewal and refreshment, I was getting close to burnout, and so I had a sabbatical. I had three months off, and my bishop said, you can do what you like with this, really. And it was like suddenly becoming aware of a deep thirst you’ve been repressing. I thought, all I need is poetry.

I sat down—this was towards the end of the ’90s—and basically reread the main body of English poetry. Not just religious poetry, but everything, all the stuff I’d studied as an undergraduate. I didn’t expect that to renew my faith, but it did.

Out of that eventually came a book called Faith, Hope and Poetry. I began to go, okay, I need to write again. I moved from parish ministry into university ministry, into chaplaincy, and that meant I could do a bit of teaching in English. So I was suddenly in an atmosphere in which I could be both a priest and, if you like, a literary person. Suddenly, that seemed to almost open the floodgates, and I began to write again.

I don’t think of my priestly vocation as one thing and my poetic vocation as another. I think of them really as two aspects of the same vocation.

Part of your new book is in response to a George Herbert poem. Could you tell me more about what you find so compelling about Herbert, and how you think his work speaks to today?

I think his work does speak to today—though obviously you have to get around the fact that he was writing in the early 17th century. [His] book was published posthumously—shortly after he died a friend of his published them in 1633 in a book called The Temple, and [it’s] actually never been out of print since. [His poems are] very beautiful and very heartfelt.

He’s a very honest poet, and a very, what you might call comprehensive poet. I’ve often found that religious discourse nowadays is quite often not only very limited in the topics it deals with, but certainly in some churches it’s all about having these upbeat experiences and smiling, you know, because you found Jesus.

I find [Herbert’s] writing about faith much more compelling than something that doesn’t admit to its struggles or difficulties.

But the poem that particularly inspired the new book is a poem of George Herbert’s called “Prayer.” It’s a sonnet, so it’s only 14 lines. But in the 14 lines he just gives you a series of little nuggets if you like, little images, each of which is prayer if you want to reflect on it. Some of the phrases have become very famous, like “heaven in ordinary.” Or, at one point, he says prayer is “the six-days world transposing in an hour.” But he also has a section in the middle where he talks about struggle in prayer, and he says prayer is “engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r” and “Christ-side-piercing spear.” That’s quite sharp.

The poem finishes like this:

The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

It just ends with those modest words, “Something understood.”

I’d been reading this poem and actually using it [when leading] retreats. There are 26 images plus the phrase “Something understood” in this short poem. I figured that each one of these, if you explore it, is really rich. And I remember saying to some people on a retreat once, “Maybe you should pick the one that appeals to you the most and see if it could be the beginning of a new poem for you.”

One day I was on retreat myself and I thought, maybe I should take a leaf out of my own book, try this out. So I began quietly to meditate on each of these phrases and write an answering sonnet for each one of these phrases, trying to think about what it meant for us now in a contemporary world. I realized as I did it not only how rich they were, but actually they’re not a random jumble of phrases. They sort of tell a story.

So as I sort of slowed the poem down, I found that in writing I could not only open out the journey that’s in the poem, but I realized it was also my own journey—and perhaps a lot of other Christians’ journey, where you go through times of darkness and difficulty. But when you recover, what you recover is mature—and better than the thing you had before.

After Prayer is available on amazon.ca and bookdepository.com. You can read and listen to audio recordings of Guite’s poetry at malcomguite.wordpress.com.

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