13 February 2020, The Tablet

Here dead we lie


Here dead we lie
 

These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards
JEAN SPRACKLAND
(jonathan CAPE, 240 PP, £16.99
Tablet bookshop price £15.29 • Tel 020 7799 4064

Poets have always done their time in graveyards. A well appointed graveyard, after all, is a welcoming point of entry and exit. There is also something about the poet’s vision, some element of slightly stunned farseeingness, which seems to suggest that life and death might be permeable after all.

Some of the most quoted lines of verse in the English language have been lifted from a long elegy which was once as famous as any poem ever really could be: Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, which was toiled over by that delicate Cantab­rian soul in the 1750s. Here are some of those ­quotations, and you might reflect as you read them upon the fact that they have often been stolen as useful titles of books, etc.: “Far from the madding crowd ...” “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air ...”, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Like many of his poetic contemporaries, Gray was very keen on moralistic generalities, which can finally become a little tedious when over-indulged. There can be a ring of false piety about the habit. The best of them aren’t tedious though. They stick to you like burrs.

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