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 porch or place
Where we have never lain!
‘Here’s not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some sturdy strumpet!
‘From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchman’s pick and plane,
Deliver us O lord! Amen!’
Here’s an early Thomas Hardy poem. The idea of the poem is that a part of a churchyard has been levelled by removing or moving headstones. The poem is not that clear except that some headstones are jumbled, presumably from being forced into a smaller area and some have been moved to out of the way places where there happens to be a little room. Hardy did some work as a church architect, so I imagine that he was part of renovations that did “level” some churchyards. Also, I imagine that he carried this idea for a poem around for a long time before he acted on it.
I’m not a scholar; I’m a poet. (Dammit, Jim.) When I read other poets it is with two minds. The first mind reads as anyone else would, for enjoyment, for that little pop, that twang of the heart that a good poem brings. I guess there are still innocent readers out there who just like poetry and don’t read it because they are trying to get a laurel to wear themselves. The second mind is a scavenger. That mind is looking for things to use. So what can a contemporary poet take from this old Hardy poem?
There is a balance in reading as a poet. Read none of your peers and you don’t have the same set of tools available. Read too much of your peers and all you can do is echo. You have nothing to bring then but your own personality which would be fine if you are incredibly charming or if you are halfway through drinking yourself to death. But if you are a boring old stick in the mud, you might have a problem. Read only the classics and you can’t help but become dated, espicially if you don’t read far enough back. I spent a lot of time with the poet’s of the fifties, Bishop and Lowell, for example. It ’s a style that is still valid but whenever I look at a new journal I am jealous of how much more poets are doing with lines, breaking and not breaking them, new shapes/ideas organizing poems, how much obscurity is used, how much more directness is used. How much more frank they can be with the rawness of youth.
I’m still nervous when the lines aren’t identical lengths.
One thing to look for in a much older poem is what we can’t use.
On the form, the ballad stanzas are fine. The rhymes chime reliably enough for the music to pull us along, no clunkers. Nice touch on the last rhyming pair, putting the amen after the rhyme of “sward” and “Lord.” There is enough rhythmic variation to keep us from falling asleep. It does what good form should, invisibility. We can still use this form if we have a compelling reason to sound like a song. This poem is not necessarily a place that I would go to sharpen my form.
In a vast and probably overly personal generalization, our poems seem to resist message. Seem. A favoring of some moment of emotional clarity or intensity is a message in and of it itself. This poem has more of a message than we are used to and he leads us to it harder than we are used to being led. Hardy doesn’t believe much in a God that takes an interest in our lifes or of the promise of any kind of afterlife. Some of his other poems make a case that it would almost be better to have an angry god than the indifferent one that he perceives. Might be refreshing now to get a message, especially if it wasn’t political. Maybe something about love or the lack thereof ladeled on thick.
Hardy makes a kind of collective speaker for the dead in the churchyard. That collective speaker is speaking to us collectively. It isn’t addressed to one person going through the churchyard. It seems a note or an inscription left for any passenger in the future. The collective speaker isn’t used that much in contemporary poetry. We strongly prefer the I. I strongly prefer the I. After that, the next fallback is to a omniscient third.
Speaking as a We was always a device but now it feels even more so like some grand rhetorical device. I was thinking that I couldn’t name a poem that uses this but then the words, “We jazz june,” popped into my head. The things we can’t use are really what we should try to use. Has poetry lost the ability to speak for the whole tribe at once? Probably. I think we can, as June Jordan does, speak for a smaller group we know intimately. Or we could speak for a ridiculously small and made up group, like the poor souls at this church.
Irony is also something that we generally shy away from. Irony needs the reader to get a message that the speaker in the poem doesn’t get. I’m referring to dramatic irony here. So it really has the same problem as message but with a layer of technique added to it. Hardy uses this device to lead us to his message. First, we get the great line about being mixed to human jam. Dark, funny. And you can see immediately how that would be a problem for any speaker. But the first thought after processing the humor and the funny idea of all the jams being mixed up, is what kind of “I” can something mixed to human jam have.
By the time, we get to the rhyme of trumpet and strumpet and the silliness of good jam ladies worried about being confused with immoral jam ladies, the dark thought comes to us, if it is silly for the dead to worry about, it might be silly for the living too. The identity crisis of the speaker is also that of the poet.
The part of me that used to write papers compells me to mention that the word, levelled, refers to the ground in the churchyard, but it also refers to a levelling morally and socially of the people buried and by extension all the members of the church. It could also be referring to death itself.
Maybe I like this poem because I’ve tried to write a few ghost poems- the ghosts that hang out in my apartment and another that imagined the street by street map of somebody’s personal ghost town. By the way, I don’t believe in ghosts. I just like the idea of them, hanging out, having opinions about our follies.
Another thing you can do with an old poem is try to imagine how it would be written today. With this poem, I could imagine a wild Dean Young treatment, with a long list of mixed-up fantastical ghosts blaming city hall. Or a wry Billy Collins treatment from the point of view of the church architect. The fourth stanza is already close to the quiet despair of a Phillip Larkin poem. Wait. Larkin goes too far back. He’s already in the jumbled cemetery.