Wednesday 9 January 2019

'The same far rumour'

What with one thing and another, I haven't done as much reading as usual these past few weeks, but I have read and enjoyed the anthology I mentioned recently, Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches, lovingly curated by Kevin J. Gardner. He sees the poets he has selected as engaged in the 'recuperation of Anglican memory' and thereby accepting the Blakean charge of building Jerusalem in England, fostering 'a sense and a hope that the present world of chaos and fragmentation might be transmuted into identity, order and meaning'. Well, amen to that, though the elegiac tone of these poems inevitably speaks more of loss than of recuperation.
  The modern English church elegy is a peculiarly Anglican phenomenon, born of the decline of the Church of England as an organic national church, the firm spiritual centre of communal life at both national and local level. This loss, of course, runs parallel to the more general decline of doctrinal faith and the apparently irresistible spread of secularism. Philip Larkin is the laureate and originator of this kind of elegy; his Church Going looms huge over the poems collected here, and its mood suffuses most of them. There is a more comfortable but less potent tradition that flows from Betjeman's church poems, but Larkin is the man for the awkward, puzzled, awed encounter with a tradition of belief and observance that seems to have entered a fast-fading twilight, yet still retains a disturbing power to move and to unsettle.
  Larkin is also, along with Geoffrey Hill (who doesn't write in the shadow of Larkin, or anyone else), by some margin the best poet represented, followed, I'd say, by Peter Porter (represented by three fine poems) and of course John Betjeman. Most of the poems collected here are well written and structured, essentially descriptive, fittingly elegiac in tone and suggestive of some continuity of faith, or at least some possibility of it. Few of them achieve escape velocity and rise much above the descriptive, but they do what they do skilfully and often eloquently, and as descriptions they are often vivid and evocative. I discovered one notably powerful poem, new to me, that stands alone for its ambition, originality and skill – George Barker's At Thurgarton Church, a long poem that might stand as an updating of Gray's Elegy for an age of lost or declining faith (you can read it here). 
  I was also glad to find three fine poems by C.H. Sisson, and three by U.A. Fanthorpe, a bit of a church poem specialist – as was Anthony Thwaite, who has more poems that anyone else in the book (though none of them, for me, hit the heights). Peter Scupham, another church poem specialist, is deservedly well represented, and I'll end by passing on one of his – and urging church-loving readers to take a look at this well chosen, enjoyable and rewarding anthology...


Recall now, treading the cloister garth's clipped grass,
That time the Commissioners urged their sweating horses
About the uneasy land. Under huge gates they paced,

Ironically savouring that final confrontation,
The long concessions winding to surrender.
Houghton, Whiting: some took martyrdom. To fresh vocations

Most adjusted, leaving the cool painted house
Of prayer, and all its various furniture,
Each known and local contour of a dwelling place.

Lead bubbled, wood-smoke ascended. Rough secular hands
Fluttered both text and commentary, levelled well-set courses
Of cut stone for manor, mansion, God made no visible amends.

A spectacular pleasure, some. Bolton to the suave Wharfe leans
Her vacant choir. From Crowland's screen, decaying features
Gaze severely at the unlettered town.

Such emblems landscape bears as sands bear shells:
Twinned tokens, disciplines where life declines.
In an attentive ear, the same far rumour swells.


  1. Dear Sir Ness, How is your local church? Is it a bit Roman or rather more laid back? Do you feel comfortable when you attend service? I am curious, as an outsider who attended Jumpin' Mother Agnes' Wholly Holy Temple of Corporeal and Spiritual Love, back in the day. Your churches over here always seem damp and cold to me, and your preachers are a bit dull, to tell truth.

  2. High, Newman, High, but I haven't been there in a while. Most churches around here are happy clappy, a different way of being dull.