Wednesday 22 December 2021

Past and Present

 In a passage in his English Hours, Henry James pays a visit to Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire (which seems to have presented a livelier, and certainly a drunker, scene then than it does now it's an English Heritage site). Finding that 'there was still a good deal of old England in the scene', James goes on: 'Who shall resolve into its component parts any impression of this richly complex English world, where the present is always seen, as it were, in profile, and the past presents a full face?' 
  It's a striking phrase, and true, and not only of England. The present is always passing before us, on its way to somewhere else – that somewhere else being, of course, the past, which is indeed all around us, presenting its full face, or the remnants of its full face – though what we see of it might equally be regarded as the back view of something still retreating. Whatever, the past is inescapably present in the fabric of England – no more so than in, say, Italy or Greece, but certainly more so than in James's native America. What gives this presence in England its special character is, I think, one thing more than any other: the ubiquity of the English parish church, nearly always old or designed in homage to the old, and present in practically every village, however remote. The steeple of the parish church, appearing above trees, or rising above a cluster of buildings, standing high on a hill or out in the fields, deserted by its village, is perhaps the defining image of England (and the soundtrack would be the gentle cawing of rooks). 
  All of which calls for a church poem. Not 'Church Going' again, not a Betjeman, but this, by U.A. [Ursula] Fanthorpe, about one of the oldest churches in England still in something like its original form – the wood-built Saxon church of Greensted in Essex...

Stone has a turn for speech.
Felled wood is silent
As mown grass at mid-day.

These sliced downright baulks
Still bear the scabbed bark
Of unconquered Epping
Though now they shore up
Stone, brick, glass, gutter
Instead of leaf or thrush.

Processing pilgrims,
The marvels that drew them –
Headless king, holy wolf –
Have all fined down to 
Postcards, a guidebook, 
Matins on Sunday.

So old it remembers
The people praying
Outside in the rain
Like football crowds. So old
Its priests flaunted tonsures
As if they were war-cries.

Odd, fugitive, like
A river's headwaters
Sliding a desultory 
Course into history. 

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