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  • Writer's pictureinScribe


By James Cooper (with Malcolm Guite)

Image © Lancia E. Smith.

Malcolm Guite (with a hard g, rhyming with kite) is one of those rare souls able to combine scholarship with creative flair and a deep sensibility to lived experience. His credentials as a writer, academic, teacher, poet, musician and ordained priest testify to his wide-ranging experience and interest in both the philosophical and the practical sides of a life well lived. Of particular interest to me – as a writer and a teacher of writing and literature – is Guite’s commitment to helping readers rediscover the vital role of the imagination in human knowing, and hence the value of the creative arts (and of poetry in particular) in providing a full and meaningful account of what the world is like.

As implied by the title of his 2008 book, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, Guite deems the poetic imagination to be of particular importance to the life of the Church, arguing for a renewed approach to reading and appreciating poetry for its potential to deepen, and in fact transfigure, our understanding of the world and ourselves.

Many fine reviews of Faith, Hope and Poetry (FHP) can be found elsewhere online. For this article, Dr Guite has kindly permitted us to share his reading of Seamus Heaney’s remarkable poem ‘The Rain Stick’, which happens to resonate perfectly with our current theme of Water. To provide a little context to Guite’s analysis, however, a few preliminary observations may prove helpful.

Guite’s overall aim in FHP is to commend poetry as a means to redressing what he sees as an imbalance in our contemporary western worldview. This imbalance is one that privileges knowledge born of secular reason and the natural sciences over and above that associated with the imagination, the arts, and other culturally embedded means of discerning our place in the world. Since the time of the Enlightenment, at least, there has been a growing tendency to reduce all true and valid knowing to scientific knowledge attained by way of the empirical method. One consequent tendency has been to regard knowledge born of the human heart – i.e. the wisdom and insight afforded by art and literature, and religious and cultural experience more broadly – as epistemologically suspect. In the wake of the Enlightenment, Guite observes:

The new philosophers and scientists had declared war on the imagination, and the consequence of that war was kind of cultural apartheid: the entire realm of ‘objective’ truth was to be the exclusive terrain of Reason at its narrowest – analytic, productive, atomising; and the faculties of Imagination and Intuition, those very faculties that although capable of integrating, synthesising and making sense of our atomised factual knowledge, were relegated to purely private and ‘subjective’ truth.

Such a view stands in sharp contrast to the wisdom of earlier ages which, Guite notices, “were rooted in the idea that fables, stories and myths were the medium that most completely embodied the deepest truths we need to know.” Further obscured by this sharp division between reason and imagination has been the vital role played by the imagination in all human knowing – the very idea of the imagination as a vital cognitive faculty, able to break open and reveal to us something of the true nature of reality. Modern science may reveal to us an incredible array of data and facts about the world. But what those facts mean, and even which facts we deem important, is largely a function of the imagination. As C.S. Lewis memorably put it, “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning”. Further, Lewis argued, it takes both faculties operating together to provide anything like an accurate account of the way things are.

In his remarkable short essay Meditation in a Toolshed, Lewis develops this stereoscopic approach to reading reality in terms of the distinction between “looking at” and “looking along”. He reflects on the powerful difference between looking at a shaft of sunlight streaming through a crack in the tool shed door – from side-on – compared to standing level with the same beam of light and looking along its length towards its source. The same phenomenon regarded from two different perspectives could hardly yield more contrasting experiences, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Neither view, however, could be said to be more “true” than the other, and it would be a sorry account indeed that regarded only one perspective as offering a full and sufficient picture of things.

In a similar vein, Guite does not reject the knowledge afforded us by the rise of scientific reason, but he does lament the perspective we have lost as a result of elevating one way of viewing the world above all others. It is Guite’s belief that the poetic imagination stands in need of a renaissance, and in FHP he takes some impressive first steps towards developing a more integrated account of how reason and imagination can work together to provide a fuller picture of the world and our place within it.

With clarity and copious examples, Guite leads the reader in pursuit of such questions as, “How can we set about reading poetry and engaging the poetic imagination in a way that will heal or restore lost vision?” and “How do poets change the way we see, and what kind of new vision is it they offer?” The short answer to that second question, for Guite, is that poetry can provide us a “transfigured” vision of reality – or what Seamus Heaney describes in The Redress of Poetry as “a draft of the clear water of transformed understanding.”

With water in mind, then, we come at last to Guite’s wonderful reading of Heaney’s poem ‘The Rain Stick’, from the poet’s 1996 collection, Spirit Level. The poem is one of two Guite uses initially to model the approach to reading poetry he wishes to commend. His goal here is to “help us reflect on the nature of poetry itself, and on how to read it”, an approach we at inScribe wholeheartedly endorse. That Heaney’s poem should be so rich in its use of water imagery, what’s more, makes Guite’s analysis the perfect introduction to our current theme. May it challenge and reward you in equal measure, prompting you to reflect upon and respond more deeply to the subject matter called to mind by the poet, and so too the world at large.

James Cooper, March 2021


Heaney’s ‘The Rain Stick’

So let us begin where we are, in our own age and read Heaney’s astonishing poem, finding in it an opening, an invitation, into the poetry of every age:

The Rain Stick

Upend the rain stick and what happens next

Is a music that you never would have known

To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash

Come, flowing through. You stand there like a pipe

Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales

Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes

A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;

Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.

Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,

Twice, ten, a thousand times before.

Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?

You are like a rich man entering heaven

Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

Water Imagery

The first thing to strike the reader (and I hope the listener, for this is a poem that demands to be read aloud) is the sheer particular vividness of the myriad water images that fall like a cataract through the mind and like the sounds of refreshing water upon the ear: ‘Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash’ have in their rhythmic and repeated w and sh the very sound of the water sloshing and washing as it runs down and backs up against itself; and then the new half-line that ends the sentence – ‘come flowing through’ – itself expresses the sudden clearing of a channel or passage that lets the water flow through smoothly and quietly again. The phrases and images build to a compendium of all that one has ever enjoyed in the many forms of water from the sluice-rush, through trickles and sprinkles, to the beautifully observed detail of ‘subtle little wets off grass and daisies’. Such rich imagery demands a slow and succulent reading, a tasting of the words as they flow, and this celebration of the very words and sounds as good in themselves, this more engaged way of reading, is one of the ways of approaching poetry, that we shall consider later.

Refreshment from the Dry

After this first sense of the refreshing variety of water, the reader then feels all the more powerfully the creative tension between ‘downpour sluice-rush, spillage and backwash’ and the phrase that precedes it – ‘In a cactus stalk’. Some of this poem's power to move us is generated by the polarity and counterpoint between the world of images that lie behind the little seed-like words – ‘grit’, ‘dry’, ‘cactus’ – and all the lush water sounds, which emerge from this dry cactus. It is this awareness of tension or polarity that moves us towards the heart of the poem, which is the paradox of refreshment from the dry. Not simply of this moment of water music from the cactus, but of every experience in life when there is a sudden blessing from barrenness, a hope from despair, a grace at the zero point. And in that sense this poem is certainly about poetry itself. In The Redress of Poetry, Heaney, commenting on a poem of Robert Frost’s, says that poetry ‘provides a draught of the clear water of transformed understanding and fills the reader with a momentary sense of freedom and wholeness’. This is certainly what is happening by the time we reach the invitation at the end of this poem to be like one who enters heaven through the ear of a raindrop.

The Challenge to ‘Scientism’

When, once we have been ushered by the poet into this realm of paradox, we begin to notice other things through the lens of his poem. We see that it is written as a deliberate challenge, not to science in its largest and most integrative sense, but to 'scientism', the reductive way of seeing things in terms only of what can be weighed and measured; the approach that dissects a living whole into its measurable constituent parts and then says that the measurable is all that there is. This approach is what Mary Midgely calls ‘an unbalanced fascination with the imagery of atomism – a notion that the only way to understand anything is to break it into its ultimate smallest parts and to conceive these .as making up something comparable to a machine’. A scientist working in this reductive mode would say all you have heard is the fall of dry seeds through a cactus, but the poet replies:

Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?

You are like a rich man entering heaven

Through the ear of a raindrop.

And as we hear the poem’s music and through it the music of water springing miraculously from the desiccated, we know that the poem in fact describes what really happens, which is more than the bare accuracy of ‘fall of grit and dry seeds’.

The Theme of Music

This emergence of the music of water from the dry and desiccated prepares us for the other great theme of this poem, which is music itself; not only heard music but a deeper music ‘you never would have known to listen for’. The poem begins and ends with the injunction to listen, and once the ear is attuned to this theme it catches the catena of words and images drawn from the world of music: ‘ ... listen... pipe being played ... diminuendo runs through all its scales ... almost-breaths of air ... undiminished ... entering heaven through the ear ...’.

The double senses of water and music in many of these phrases is beautifully achieved especially after the phrase ‘pipe being played’ has delicately suggested to the .mind the image perhaps of a flute, then the phrase ‘almost-breaths of air’, which is first about the fresh air in a garden after rain, and at the same time, just as delicately, conjures the wonderful breathy sound the flute can make.

A Shift of Perspective

At the heart of this musical theme comes one of those sudden shifts of perspective whereby the poets shake us to anew understanding. For the first few lines of the poem we !Ire outside the instrument, holding and upending the dry stalk, listening for its music, then comes the image of it as a water pipe down which the water is sluicing and rushing, and then suddenly it is we ourselves who are the pipe; we are· being played:

You stand there like a pipe

Being played by water.

In this sudden shift you get that entering into experience, that coalescing of observer and observed, that was so dreadfully and drily missing from the Enlightenment perspective.


As we re-read it and enjoy it again we discover that ‘The Rain Stick’ is also a poem-about repetition, about the-relation between the outer repetitions in time and the inner experience in eternity. It is a poem of hope and realism, for it does not suggest as some Romantics and false mystics have, that the moment of revelation, when the transfiguring light of heaven falls through the window of an experience, is a one-off, never to be caught again, always to be sought, but never accessible to the ordinary person. Quite the reverse. This poem is about the apprehension of the divine in the regular, of ‘heaven in ordinary’:

Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,

Twice, ten, a thousand times before.


And so this poem is also about sacrament. I read it and it reflects for me my experience as a Christian coming to communion, as a priest celebrating communion. The plain little wafer is as dry as those falling seeds, the daily wine and water are all repeated ‘twice, ten, a thousand times’, and yet from them also, undiminished, comes the refreshing flow from the source of all things.

And finally, because it is about sacrament, this poem is about entering heaven. Heaney delicately alludes to one of the hard sayings of Jesus and releases from it somehow an unexpected grace: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ ‘The eye of a needle’ in Christ’s saying becomes in this poem, in a strange and beautiful conflation of images, ‘the ear of a raindrop’. In this image we both hear the music of water and see for an instant how the curved reflective surface of the droplet seems to hold the whole world. However, the world it contains is not only a reflection of our own, but also wholly new. The mirror, held up to nature, has become a window; the window has become a gateway through which we may enter – as the last lines invite us again to enter – into the mystery. And we do so by listening to the music of the rain stick through the music of the poem:

You are like a rich man entering heaven

Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.


Malcolm Guite is a poet, musician, songwriter, Anglican priest and Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. He teaches for the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge and lectures widely in England and North America on Theology and Literature.

James Cooper is Senior Editor of inscribe Journal and Head of Creative Writing & Communication at Tabor Adelaide.

Photo of Malcolm Guite © Lancia E. Smith.


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