Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Tickencote churchyard

18th cen gravestones in Tickencote churchyard, Rutland
Some fifteen years ago, or a little more, I ran a class in creative writing on Thursday afternoons. One sunny autumn day we strolled to nearby Willian church for inspiration. The church is permanently and impenetrably locked - a perfectly justifiable precaution against all the local felons who would of course strip it of its contents and turn it into a smouldering ruin within a week should it ever open its doors - so we wandered around the churchyard, reading the tombstones and reflecting on mortality (though this didn't stop some of the literary responses being light-hearted and witty).

There are no notable graves, either aesthetically or historically. Even the oldest ones are no older than early Victorian, yet, despite their lack of antiquity, many of the inscriptions are now illegible. (The same is true of many other gravestones in many other churchyards.) It struck me how sad it is that the relations and friends of the dead put so much emotion (and money - tombstones aren't cheap) into commemorating them, expecting the commemoration to last, if not for ever, a very long time, and now, not much more than a century later, their loving inscriptions have faded away. Stone gives the appearance of being permanent, but it isn't. It weathers and crumbles. The lapidary immortality they sought is illusory.

Furthermore, the relations and friends have themselves died and been equally forgotten. The mourners who stood around the graves at the burial perhaps have their own illegible memorials elsewhere. 

The first eight and last two lines of the following very Hardyesque poem came to me more or less instantaneously. It took me a decade or more to fill in the gap. 

The epigraph is of course from 'Fear no more the heat o' th' sun' from Cymbeline, one of the greatest song lyrics ever written. 

In the second stanza I originally intended to say that prayers are useless as they go nowhere, but rain is one of the most useful things there is, so I've contradicted myself. I haven't changed it because a) I'm lazy and incompetent, and b) I'm happy to think that prayers might do some worldly good even if they don't go via Heaven. The word 'graved' is borrowed from Stevenson's poignant 'Requiem' ('This be the the verse you grave for me').*

The repetition of 'thoughts' in the second stanza and 'thought' in the third is clumsy. 

'Save' in the third stanza isn't quite right, but I rather like the pun on 'letter' (letter of the alphabet/someone who lets or leases something, such as a grave). The grammar of the last line is ropey, but I think its meaning is clear enough. 

The list in the first line of the last stanza is feeble. I couldn't and can't think of a better way of filling up the line.


Golden lads and girls all must . . .

Where are the mourners now?
          Gone to dust;
Fallen under the plough,
          As all things must.

Once they graved these words
          With tears and pain;
Their thoughts flew up like birds,
          And fell like rain.

They thought their words would last
          To save their dead,
But the letters' lease has passed:
          Unreadable, unread.

Their sighs, their grief, their groans
          Were all in vain.
These leaning lichened stones
          Are all that remain.

18th cen gravestones in Tickencote churchyard, Rutland

* This line is the source of the title of an infinitely superior but equally depressing poem, Larkin's 'This Be the Verse' ('They fuck you up, your mum and dad . . . ')

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