Saturday, April 18, 2015

`Some Frail Memorial Still Erected Nigh'

In Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place (Granta, 2014), Philip Marsden visits Tregony, a village in Cornwall, and approaches two men in the churchyard of St. Rumon’s. One is digging a grave. The other is “busy leaning on his spade.” Marsden describes the latter as “an elderly man with a jowly face” who is “quite happy to interrupt his leaning for a little chat.” We know the type here in the U.S. He’s the sort of man who leans and loafs at his ease though he is not a goldbricker, exactly, but a man who budgets his time wisely and is comfortable delegating tasks. He would be genuinely affronted if you accused him of feather-bedding. In contemporary terminology he is a consultant. And he is eloquent:

“`Exciting place, a graveyard. Least I always think so. Always something going on.’ We looked around at the headstones and the empty paths and the shadowy places beneath the sycamore. He extended a finger to an age-skewed memorial beside us. `Best stones are they [sic] slate ones – like that. Nice curly writing. Stays hundreds of years on slate – not like the limestone. Weather gets to the limestone and it’s gone in no time, wiped away.’”

Some of us would concur. A visit to a graveyard is less morbid than a prompt for contemplation. There’s much to read, wildflowers in abundance and quiet. Often the company is excellent. Marsden has come to St. Rumon’s in search of John Whitaker (1735-1808), historian and hot-tempered clergyman. Marsden says of him: “He knew Dr Johnson. He was friends with Edward Gibbon (who showed him for comment the manuscript of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). In 1771 he was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.” Johnson scoffed at Whitaker’s two-volume History of Manchester. Marsden agrees but adds: “…in the couple of miles around his rectory, Whitaker discovered a fresh way of revealing the past: through old walls and rubbish piles, ruins, fields, oral history and toponymy.”

Thomas Gray wrote the primal text on English churchyards when Whitaker was still a boy. It remains among the most popular and rereadable poems in the language:

“Yet even these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

“Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.”

Dr. Johnson had serious reservations about Gray’s poetry, but about the “Elegy” he was generous and grateful:

“In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning `Yet even these bones’ are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.”

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