Nige has published his first book, The Mother of Beauty (Thorntree Press, 2019), devoted to English church monuments. Don’t mistake it for a field guide or academic tract. Its genre is mixed. Nige undertakes a sort of pilgrimage into England’s past, and churches are the stations he visits along the way. The journey is as much spiritual as art-historical. Throughout the book Nige cites a haunting phrase from Coleridge’s Anima Poetae: “the spiritual, Platonic old England . . .” It’s a tag Geoffrey Hill uses as an epigraph to “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.”
Early in the book, Nige and his Derbyshire cousin visit Winkburn, a village in Nottinghamshire. There they find a church, St. John of Jerusalem, “a curious mix of Norman and seventeenth-century,” off the tourist path, “deeply hidden among [the] dense evergreenery.” Nige quotes the opening lines of another poem by Hill, “The Distant Fury of Battle”:
“Grass resurrects to mask, to strangle,
Words glossed on stone, lopped stone-angel;
But the dead maintain their ground . . .”
Inside are two monuments representing the Burnells, the family that for nine generations occupied the manor at Winkburn. Nige hears stories of a nearby “holy well,” which, he writes, “leads us yet deeper into history, and beyond the reach of history . . .” He continues:
“Places like Winkburn belong to that deep England – I call it Platonic England . . . that still lives on, silent, almost unpeopled, lost in a half-waking dream, barely registering on the world, even on the country. As much an essence as a place, this is an England no one but a church crawler or a very determined walker would think to visit, and invariably we happen upon it by chance, and know it when we find it.”
The Mother of Beauty, among its other identities, serves as an informal anthology of English literature, especially poetry. Along the way we meet Shakespeare, Webster, Sir Thomas Browne, Donne, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Tennyson, Ruskin and Betjeman, among others, as well as the words of anonymous folk poets engraved on monuments and gravestones. Nige devotes an entire chapter to Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” But the poet who presides over The Mother of Beauty is Philip Larkin. The book’s opening lines are the opening lines of “Church Going”:
“Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.”
Nige describes the poem as “a pungent compound of abashed self-consciousness, reverence, bewilderment and awe.” His final chapter considers Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb” and its much-misunderstood closing line, “What will survive of us is love,” which inspires a marvelous and very personal three-page meditation on love, faith, memory and what it means to be human. Nige surprised me by taking his final lines from a song by Leonard Cohen.
I’m reminded of what Nige’s friend Bryan Appleyard wrote in 2007: “Nobody can understand England without some sense of her poetry. That means, of course, that very few now understand England.” Perhaps it’s presumptuous of an American even to contemplate the question of Englishness, but as Americans our inheritance is English, from our language and Constitution to much of what is best in our literature. Three American poets make cameo appearances in Nige’s book – Dickinson, Stevens (the book’s title) and Wilbur. The closest an American might come to undertaking a comparable pilgrimage on native ground would be to visit our Civil War battlefield sites, especially Gettysburg.
No book published in 2019 has so moved me. It starts as one thing and mutates by way of digressions into many other things. Nige's prose is splendid. In his second-to-last paragraph he writes:
“Our lives are little, our time is brief, we are but lightly here – a stroll around any long-established graveyard will bring these facts home – and yet our lives are also of infinite significance. Hence the urge to memorialize them, hence the beauty of our finest monuments.”