A Poet at the Dinner Table


I’m delighted to find myself joining you for what seems a happily protracted dinner at the vicarage.  I am partial to dinners of every kind, from the grand and stately to the gloriously improvised, and am always as glad to imbibe the conversation as I am the wine. Indeed, at the best dinners the conversation can be even more heady than the wine and flow just as freely. I’ve always liked the fact that George Herbert opens his fabulous little sonnet about prayer with these three heart-warming words: ‘The Church’s Banquet’. Herbert would have known a thing or two about banquets because his mother, the brilliant and gregarious Magdalen Herbert, was famous for her hospitality as well as her wit, and would often have the likes of John Donne round to supper parties to encourage her son’s poetical propensities. But Herbert also knew that a Banquet, a glorious meal shared together, is Christ’s great emblem of the Kingdom, so why might it not also be an emblem of prayer; our path to the kingdom and our foretaste of it? When I came to write my own sonnet on that one phrase of Herbert’s I thought I’d tease out what a banquet is partly by saying what it is definitely not! I hope this rings some bells with those of you who enjoy and serve ‘course after course of hospitality’:

The Church’s Banquet

Not some strict modicum, exact allowance,
Precise prescription, rigid regimen,
But beauty and gratuitous abundance,
Capacious grace, beyond comparison.
Not something hasty, always snatched alone;
Junkets of junk food, fuelling our dis-ease,
Not little snacklets eaten on the run,
But peace and plenty, taken at our ease.
Not to be worked for, not another task,
But love that’s lavished on us, full and free,
Course after course of hospitality,
And rich wine flowing from an unstopped flask.
He paid the price before we reached the inn,
And all He asks of us is to begin.

But I have perhaps arrived a little late for your banquet, and I imagine, as you open the door to me, that you may already have progressed on the after-dinner cheeses. So much the better. I love cheese, especially if there happens to be some port or perhaps a bottle of claret to go with it. GK Chesterton famously said that ‘the poets have been mysteriously silent about cheese’. Stung by this rebuke, I thought I should reply on behalf of the poets. Perhaps you might enjoy this little sonnet alongside the stinking bishop:

A reply to GKC

Poets have been silent about cheese
Because whilst every  subject is the message.
Cheese is the very medium of their work.
We drink in language with our mothers milk
But poets curdle words until they bite,
With substance and a flavour of their own:

So Donne is sharp and Geoffrey Hill is sour
Larkin acerbic, Tennyson has power
(But only late at night, taken with port)
I like them all and sample every sort
From creamy Keats with his mossed cottage trees
Tasting the words themselves like cottage cheese
To Eliot, difficult, in cold collations
Crumbling and stuffed with other folks’ quotations..

But perhaps I’m too late, even for the cheese course! No matter, as long as there’s some of that Côtes du Rhône left, the one who you had with your ragù, I shall be content. Perhaps Giles would be so kind as to open another bottle, for poets are famously thirsty folk.

Now, as we come to the end of the meal, and plates are pushed aside, and chairs drawn back a little, but no-one is inclined to leave the table just yet, since we have all warmed to the company and conversation. Now is the time, savouring that wine on the palate, for remembrance of dinners past, for toasting absent friends, perhaps for a note of wistful elegy, as we come to the ending of good things. Before I down my last glass, reach for my greatcoat and step out into the night, I’ll leave you with one last little thing, an elegiac roundel on wine, to round out the night:

Pour Out The Wine

Pour out the wine for one last glass with me
And praise with me the rooted fruitful vine.
Raise up the glass, give thanks for all you see,
Pour out the wine.

Sweeten my time whilst I can call it mine,
The axe is laid already to the tree,
All we have raised aloft must soon decline.

So now, whilst hands can touch and eyes can see,
Raise up the glass and let your glance meet mine,
And when I’m gone, do this one thing for me,
Pour out the wine.

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Malcolm Guite is an English poet, singer-songwriter, Apriest, and academic.

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Dinner at the Vicarage
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