It was in June 1750 that Thomas Gray completed his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ before sending it to Horace Walpole:
“I have been here at Stoke a few days (where I shall continue good part of the summer); and having put an end to a thing, whose beginning you have seen long ago, I immediately send it to you.”
The poem became of course one of the most anthologized pieces throughout the past two-hundred and sixty-eight years and Arc’s new publication of The Lonely Funeral is firmly in that tradition of immensely powerful and haunting records of the deaths of those flowers “born to blush unseen”.
Starik’s Foreword to the volume places the scene:
“In Amsterdam there are approximately fifteen lonely funerals each year: lifelong junkies, solitary seniors, the occasional suicide. Undocumented migrants, drug mules, vagrants, victims of a questionable crime, professional drunkards who toppled into a canal weeks earlier. Most are discovered in their own home, after complaints by neighbours about the stench in the stairwell.”
And a ‘lonely funeral’ is one at which no one is present except pallbearers, one or two civil servants, the cemetery director and the funeral officiant. However, since November 2002 a project has got under way in which poets volunteer to attend these funerals of the unknown and forgotten so that they can read some words that place on record a shared sense of the common bond of humanity. The immense importance of this venture is of course for the living, as is true of all funerals. As Starik puts it “We pity no one. For us, all that counts is respect for a person’s life…the poet speaks in the darkness…We have no grief of our own”.
The first poem pays respect to an anonymous dead man who was found in an apartment in the Bijlmer, a social-housing district on the outskirts of Amesterdam. Starik suggests that he was probably from Ghana or Ivory Coast; nameless because without papers, without officially recognized identity. A migrating figure from The Dark Continent.
“Goodbye, nameless man, I salute you as you pass
into the last of lands where all are welcome,
where no one needs to know a thing about you.
Goodbye, man with no papers, no identity.
What brought you here? Who looks out through an empty window
now for you, nameless man, who’s waiting as I speak,
as I repeat my empty words in an almost empty room?
I came too late. I never knew you.”
When Gray sat in the churchyard at Stoke Poges in the mid-eighteenth century he gazed upon the stones which recorded humble lives. Buried there may be have been “Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast / The little tyrant of his fields withstood” or some “mute inglorious Milton” who kept the “noiseless tenor” of his way. Gray names none of those whose resting-place is a “narrow cell” but what he does do is evoke a picture representing the “short and simple annals of the poor”. The breath of the poetry allows the reader to stand on the verge of individual clarity: we can almost see the picture of the living person who has been one of those flowers “born to blush unseen” where the use of the word “blush” conjures a hint of awareness, of social interaction.
Each poem is preceded by a short account of the known details concerning the body which is to be buried or cremated but the poems themselves speak in that darkness which constitutes our common bond. Number 40 is Mr. M.B. who died at the age of eighty-three:
“Just as the silence at his funeral was deafening, during his life Mr. M.B. also had no one to talk to. Andy had visited his place of residence in Antwerp-South, and had spoken to a neighbour. She did not know Mr. M.B. – yes, they had exchanged a word or two in the corridor once, when there was something wrong with his television, and he asked if she could help. But it never went as far as sitting down together in front of their favourite soap”.
The poem opens
“the things a person touches
carry their imprint for a while
an existence leaves a trail
that slowly fades away”
This is an immensely important book and I should like to see every school in this country acquire a couple of copies for their Libraries. It is a book which should be available within Secondary School English Departments where it could sit side by side with the powerful reconstructions from Chaucerian tale-telling, Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus for Comma Press in 2016. Gray’s elegiac meditations in a churchyard brought us to an awareness of “Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire” and less that fifty years later William Blake concluded his ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ with the simplicity of an inclusive awareness of that common bond which keeps us pale: “Every thing that lives is Holy”. And what would a review of mine be without a passing reference to the poetry of J.H. Prynne whose introductory comment to the 1968 Ferry Press publication of Aristeas was from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:
“As to the destitute man who has no family, he takes his meals in the huts of his congeners; he enters a hut, takes –by right, not for charity – his seat by the fire, and shares the meal which always is scrupulously divided into equal parts; he sleeps where he has taken his evening meal.”
Ian Brinton, 1st September 2018