Sunday 29 October 2017

The Hardy Tree and 'human jam'

The other day I visited, for the first time, Old St Pancras' Church and its graveyard, hard by the great Victorian railway terminus named for the same Roman saint. The church is a Victorian rebuild in that ugliest of revivalist styles, Neo-Norman (the original's bad enough, Neo is ten times worse). However, its wide, uncluttered interior is very pleasing, with a few interesting monuments (including one to the great miniature painter Samuel Cooper) and a faint smell of Anglo-Catholic incense in the air. A numinous space, and wonderfully quiet amid the busyness of North London.
  That quiet is due in large part to the insulating effect of the graveyard that lies all around the church, dotted with grand old plane trees. Among those buried here are Johann Christian Bach, the sculptor John Flaxman and John Polidori, author of The Vampyre. Sir John Soane and his wife lie beneath a gloriously Soanean mausoluem, whose handkerchief-domed roof inspired the design of the red telephone box. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft share a memorial (though their remains were removed to Bournemouth in 1851). When this was the grave of her mother alone, the young Mary was brought to it daily by her father to pay her respects, and it was there, later, that she and Percy Shelley planned their elopement.
 But one of the most striking features of Old St Pancras' churchyard is not a grave but the tree pictured above – the Hardy Tree. In the mid-1860s, young Thomas Hardy, who was training to be an architect under the eminent Arthur Blomfield, had to supervise the excavation and clearing of a large part of the churchyard to make room for the expansion of the railway and its terminus. This grisly job involved dealing with a jumbled mass of coffins and human remains and removing hundreds of headstones. Hardy, it is said, had the bright idea of arranging many of these redundant stones in circles resting against the bole of a young ash tree. Now, in an effect Hardy would surely have relished, the tree's gnarled roots, growing out year after year, have begun to engulf and absorb the stones – an image of life and death inextricably intertwined.
 Some years later, when he was back in Dorset and an established writer, Hardy noticed that the graveyard of Wimborne Minster had been levelled and its headstones rearranged. Around the same time, he met Arthur Blomfield again, who reminded him how the two of them had worked on clearing Old St Pancras' churchyard, on one occasion finding a coffin that contained a skeleton with an extra skull. This train of associations inspired Hardy's first poem in several years, one full of macabre humour – The Levelled Churchyard
"O passenger, pray list and catch 
   Our sighs and piteous groans, 
Half stifled in this jumbled patch 
   Of wrenched memorial stones! 

"We late-lamented, resting here, 
   Are mixed to human jam, 
And each to each exclaims in fear, 
   'I know not which I am!' 

"The wicked people have annexed 
   The verses on the good; 
A roaring drunkard sports the text 
   Teetotal Tommy should! 

"Where we are huddled none can trace, 
   And if our names remain, 
They pave some path or p-ing place 
   Where we have never lain! 

"There's not a modest maiden elf 
   But dreads the final Trumpet, 
Lest half of her should rise herself, 
   And half some local strumpet! 

"From restorations of Thy fane, 
   From smoothings of Thy sward, 
From zealous Churchmen's pick and plane 
   Deliver us O Lord! Amen!"

The railway runs just the other side of the high wall in the background of the photograph.

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