Sunday, 14 February 2010

The dark tarn dry

There is a quotation from Walter de la Mare on a gravestone at St Nicolas’, Great Coates, and the poem isn’t one I’d encountered before.

I haven’t quite got my mind round it, but I have an inkling that it is a different version of Job, Thomas Aquinas and others regarding their arguments, skills and thoughts as so much dust and straw once they had encountered God face to face. If so, I think it (and the choice of a quotation from it for a gravestone) is like Francis close to death wishing to meet it naked and on the bare earth.

... Though I should sit
By some tarn in the hills
Using its ink
As the spirit wills
To write of earth’s wonders
Its live, willed things,
Flit would the ages
On soundless wings
Ere unto Z
My pen drew nigh
... And still would remain
My wit to try -
My worn reeds broken
The dark tarn dry
All words forgotten -
Thou Lord and I.


The poem is called The Scribe, but the grave is not that of a scribe but of an artist. Herbert Rollett was a Grimsby grocer who had exhibited several years running at the Royal Academy in the 1920s (first with a picture of St Michael’s, Little Coates, which I would now dearly like to see), and who retired to a bungalow in Great Coates.

I stumbled across a new website about him at [new link] and enjoyed the discovery before I realised that he was buried in one of our churchyards, let alone that he had chosen such an allusive and eloquent epitaph.

And an element of the recognition for me was that we read a different de la Mare poem at my father’s funeral fourteen years, one which he had valued and written out himself.

The Scribe begins with an artist’s awareness of

What lovely things
Thy hand hath made:
The smooth-plumed bird
In its emerald shade

The seed of the grass,
The speck of the stone...


and Fare well finishes by inviting our appreciation of both such things and of what they have meant to those we bury:

Oh, when this my dust surrenders
Hand, foot, lip to dust again,
May these loved and loving faces
Please other men.
May the rusting hedgerow
Still the traveller’s joy entwine
And as happy children gather
Posies once mine.


Look thy last on all things lovely every
Every hour. Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou hast paid thy utmost blessing
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days.


But the later part of The Scribe takes this on in a different way. It means that the calls on the eve of this Lent seem to be not only to savour beauty but also to be ready to lay it aside, and to hold the two calls not in tension but woven together.

1 comment:

martianpoollwoman said...

I love De la Mere's poetry Peter. My mother introduced me to his work when ! was a child. and I tried to introduce my pupils to his work whenever I could.