Tuesday 14 March 2017

Elegy Land

This ludicrous monument to the poet Thomas Gray stands in 'Gray's Field', adjacent to Stoke Poges churchyard, the hallowed plot that inspired his most famous poem, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, that quintessentially English masterpiece. Rather surprisingly, the churchyard is only a short taxi ride north from Slough railway station (a miraculously unspoilt GWR original, which Betjeman would surely have spared from those friendly bombs).
 Stoke Poges is isolated from Slough by a zone of large expensive houses in large gardens, which soon give way to something more like proper country, where the parkland of several grand houses has been preserved (some of it, alas, as a golf course) - and in the midst of all that, surrounded by dense evergreens, lies the church of St Giles in its legendary churchyard.
 First impressions - and let's be honest, second and last impressions - were not propitious. In its modern incarnation, this is not a churchyard to inspire poetry, or anything much else. It has a tidy, well-kept, municipal air, with lots of monotonously green grass and a rather sparse scattering of monuments and headstones, few of them of any antiquity (an exception is pictured below), most being modern or Victorian and more or less ugly. This is no longer a place 'where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap' - far from it - and there are probably half a dozen churchyards within a few miles of Stoke Poges that have more atmosphere and more of interest (come to that, the churchyard of my own Surrey suburban parish has more).
 The 'rugged elms' have of course gone the way of the lowing herd and the plodding ploughman, no drowsy tinklings lull the distant fold, but the setting still feels countrified rather than urban. Red kites circle overhead (they wouldn't have been there in Gray's time), harried by crows. The hum of traffic is not obtrusive. The church still stands, jumbled and irregular, built variously of flint, puddingstone, clunch and brick, picturesque and, as they say, 'not without a degree of antiquarian interest'  - also genealogical interest, as members of the Penn family are buried here, including a son of William Penn himself. Gray's tomb, which he shares with his beloved mother and aunt, is marked by a simple slab, vastly more appropriate than the grandiose monument in 'Gray's Field'.
 Sadly, almost everything that made Stoke Poges the churchyard of Gray's elegy is now lost - which is perhaps not surprising given the lapse of time. But Stoke Poges as it is now also embodies another, larger loss - of the old ways of dealing with death, of mourning and memorialising the dead. Right next to the churchyard are the Memorial Gardens - an extensive, manicured park with tarmac paths that lead the visitor to each delineated zone: rose garden, rock and water garden, parterre, oak dell, pergola, colonnade, and the less elegantly named scattering lawn where ashes may be dispersed.
 These gardens, which date back to the Thirties, are a product of the age of cremation and, if nothing else, a tribute to its efficiency. Little memorial plaques line every neat flower bed and identify each of the hundreds (thousands?) of memorial flowering shrubs and saplings. Huge numbers are remembered here - far more than would fit in a graveyard of comparable size - and they are remembered as they and their loved ones would no doubt wish to be, as an element in a pretty and well laid-out public garden, a pleasant place to visit of a Sunday afternoon and perhaps shed a tear.
 It works, and everybody seems to like it - and yet it's hard, as you walk its immaculate paths, not to sense the loss of the earthy intimacy with the dead, the intense awareness of their presence and their claims on the living, that animates Gray's elegy. It would be impossible here to think such thoughts as Gray did - even more impossible, indeed, than it would be in the present-day churchyard.
 But here is one stone that would have been there, new-carved, in Gray's day...

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect, 
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh, 
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd, 
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

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

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