It fell Green life Extinguished Time passed Slowly It diminished To its scaffolding Intact beauty still New life Surviving In the skeleton Beneath the skin Revealing the grace Which had upheld Its existence Its structure Naked now Spine-bold Ram-rod straight Not dead now Nor even dying Instead Skin shed A statement Of creation’s power Holding its tendrils Steady In firm formation Awaiting its Next chapter
Not yet shredded Not yet dust This tomography Call it a CAT scan Delving into Nature’s secret world Revealing The truth Of whence Its green strength Derived
Thus As our own surface Erodes Do we achieve The same beauty? Do we secrete Analogous New life Beneath the old? We leaves Fallen from life’s tree Shrivelled Our essence revealed In our skeletal remains Proud-structured Until The next stage And eventual Severance From what we have been Transmogrified To further service In replenishing New life forms Our fruition in The new spring’s bloom Blossom and leaves
There has to be beauty In death As in life Decay Does not doom us to death Rather There is a beauty in death The leaf ceased to be A leaf But became Something else And its beauty remained It merely Continued Into a transmuted life Its fate As our own To be Continued existence
When shadow turns to substance In the still of morning’s birth, Then once again I wonder How much my life is worth.
Have I in the scheme of things At last outlived my time? I want to last a fair span yet, To hope is not a crime.
I long to do a thousand things I’ve not had time to do, But is that just a selfish wish I’m not entitled to?
So many of my friends have gone, Lives past while mine’s still here. Do I deserve more time on earth, Or is my ending near?
Such morbid thoughts occur to me More frequently each day. I rush to pack more living in, No halt, pause or delay.
Despite the limits on my life My time is filled with actions. Yet still my mind frets at the thought Of those un-lived attractions.
Why am I selfishly intent On hurtling to nirvana, Grasping at each passing chance More enhanced life to garner?
I could so quietly subside Into a life of ease; No rush, no great exigency My daemons to appease.
Yet I am not content like that, I must remain on course, To stay with, in the time I’m left, This imperative life force.
The two photographs were taken by me in London’s Roman Amphitheatre, which can be found in its restored state in the basement of the City of London Guildhall.
These Roman remains, thought to date to the 1st Century AD, were discovered when the Guildhall Art Gallery was being re-developed in 1985. The original structure could house over 7,000 spectators seated on tiered wooden benches in what would then have been the open air, where they watched the execution of criminals as well as fights, usually to the death, between wild animals and gladiators.
More can be discovered about these little-known remains of the Roman Londinium on the City of London website at:
The Lyke Wake Walk is a 40 mile walk which crosses the most extensive area of heather moorland in England – in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. When the walk was first instituted in the mid 20th Century the challenge was given to complete it within 24 hours. Many walkers still attempt this.
Although the walk itself is a relatively modern event, the Like Wake itself originated as a funeral chant in the 14th Century in and around Cleveland on and around the northern scarp slope of these moors. The Dirge as it was known, was normally sung during the traditional watch (wake) at the side of the corpse (lyke). Known now as the Lyke Wake Dirge, it is said to be one of the earliest still extant, dialect poems.
John Aubrey wrote in his diaries in 1686 “The beliefe in Yorkshire was amongst the vulgar (perhaps is in part still) that after the person’s death the soule went over Whinny-Moore, and till about 1616-24 at the funerale a woman came and sang the following song.”
Lyke Wake Dirge
This ae neet, this ae neet, Every neet and all, Fire an’ fleet an’ candleleet, And Christ receive thy saul.
If thou from here our wake has passed, Every neet and all, To Whinny Moor thou comes at last, And Christ receive thy saul.
And if ever thou gavest hosen or shoen, Every neet and all, Then sit ye down and put them on, And Christ receive thy saul.
But if hosen or shoen thou ne’er gavest nane, Every neet and all, The whinny will prick thee to thy bare bane, And Christ receive thy saul.
From Whinny Moor when thou mayst pass, Every neet and all, To Brig o’ Dread thou comest at last, And Christ receive thy saul.
From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass, Every neet and all, To Purgatory thou comest at last, And Christ receive thy saul.
And if ever thou gavest meat or drink, Every neet and all, The fire will never make thee shrink, And Christ receive thy saul
But if meat nor drink thou ne’er gav’st nane, Every neet and all, The fire will burn thee to thy bare bane, And Christ receive thy saul.
This ae neet, this ae neet, Every neet and all, Fire an’ fleet an’ candleleet, And Christ receive thy saul.
The following is an extract from ‘Lyke Wake Walk” by Bill Cowley . . .
“Wake” means the watching over a corpse, and “Lyke” is the corpse itself- as in the “lych” gate of a church-c/f. German “leich “. … there is no suggestion that corpses were carried over the Lyke Wake Walk, and the connection between Walk and Dirge is merely that members of the first party to do the Walk, like many who have done it since, finding themselves in the middle of Wheeldale Moor at 3 a.m. felt a great sympathy with all the souls who have to do such a crossing, and a real affection for the poetry of the Dirge-its stark simplicity, repetitions, and dramatic power. Perhaps only those who have crossed Wheeldale or Fylingdales Moors with storm and darkness threatening can fully appreciate the beauty of the Lyke Wake Dirge.
For a sung version of this ancient poem – by Pentangle, click on the YouTube link below . . . Lyke Wake Dirge
What better encapsulates Life’s end Dust to bone In resolution IlAnticipated Never remembered Indescribable experience Expressed in an image
In memoriam Deferring to Absent Guests I give you The Skull beneath the skin The Quick extolling The Dead A cadaverous resurrection Memento More Become Death’s Head Where Is Thy Sting? Heads You Lose Tails? – I win Bone Dry Let Us. Pray. All Bone – No Meat Jolly Roger – Old Codger Jammy Dodger Brolly Bodger Death’s Sting Is corpsing And, pared to the Bone, Becomes Life’s Detritus Leftover leftovers Smile Of The Devil Halloween’s halo All Done and Dusted Life’s slipstream Dracula The Goth Moonshine pale Reborn as Life’s Dust What Remains Only the Death Mask Wool Skull To numb skull Skullduggery again Rebirthing as Cranium geranium Bonehead!
Between the idea And the reality Between the motion And the act Falls the Shadow.
T.S. Eliot (The Journey of the Magi)
I wrote this poem, as I did several of my recently blogged poems, many years ago. In ‘A Death I Die’ below the sober thoughts reflect a dark mood, the reason for which I now have no recollection. For me, at the time of writing, they obviously represented the Shadow, that halfway house between knowing and not-knowing, between what is and what might be, between Eliot’s ‘the motion and the act’.
A DEATH I DIE
I have no heart for selfish love that starts and ends with flesh. It leads along an endless path, it binds, compels afresh.
There is a sort of death I die; Am killed and kill myself. I am alone in this. I am a willing suicide. I go on a journey bearing my own end.
This death is a habit, a nasty selfish habit I know and hate it. I both give and receive. The giving is good – but also a habit.
Receiving – an infinite regression. We plan the means and the end is all. Purgatory is the cemetery, time the resurrection. And All is planned that This should be so.
The souls of the dead are out for the night; Relieved of life’s burdens, no cares in their world. They’ve cast off their dresses, their suits and their coats. They’ve shed their repressions, their shrouds now unfurled.
Yes, the souls of the dead are alive in this graveyard They relish their freedom from exigent life. It’s a long time since spirits were body and flesh, And bound by a lifetime’s perpetual strife.
Their skulls and their cross-bones – now symbols of joy; No more are they bound up by sinews and flesh. At last they are free to enjoy independence, Instead of entangled in life’s viscous mesh.
The gravestones that tumble aren’t suffering from age, But signs that life’s shadows from death have arisen, And now are quite free to enjoy their repose; No longer locked up in Life’s sepulchral prison.
‘Tis weird to think that those re-incarnated Are liking their life in the desolate grave. They’re loving their freedom to scare and to haunt To curdle the blood and to panic the brave.
The ghosts of the past are there in the air And hugely enjoying their spirited life Their terminal death has brought to an end Their fear of the gun, the rope and the knife.
They’re dancing on graves where their bodies were buried Carousing as though not a netherworld care ‘Tis different from life all bedevilled with worries Less urgent and pressing than work to be fair.
They hide when the day comes of course, as you know, They do need to re-charge their unworldly spirits To ready the next bout of haunting and mirth For them now there aren’t any rational limits.
Crepuscular light is enough for their congress With help from the thunder, the wind, and the lightning, They frolic and haunt, enjoying the moment; The wraiths, spooks and demons intent on their frightening.
The banshees and devils all join in the fun, The shades and the vampires, the ghouls and the phantoms, The wraiths with the zombies, kelpies and ghosts Give vent to their passions in furious tantrums.
So do not despair when you‘re laid in the ground A new life will certainly sprout from your ashes A life full of spirit, of new spectral bliss A bonus when mortal life finally passes.
The photographs used to illustrate this poem were all taken by me over a period of several years at churchyards in Surrey and in Devon, U.K.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Auden composed two versions of this poem. This, the most popular version, was composed in 1938. It was written to be sung by the soprano Hedli Anderson in a setting by Benjamin Britten. It is now frequently used in funeral services, particularly since It was widely popularised in the 1994 British romantic comedy film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’.
The pen and wash drawing above was made by me in 200. It is of Auden when in his sixties.