Lucy Vickery

Spectator competition winners: a 21st-century elegy on a country churchyard

Spectator competition winners: a 21st-century elegy on a country churchyard
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The latest competition marked the tercentenary of Thomas Gray’s birth with an invitation to submit an ‘Elegy on a Country Churchyard’ written in the metre of his famous and enduringly popular poem.

General Wolfe was a such a fan of Gray’s meditation on death and remembrance that in 1759, on the eve of the attack on Quebec, he is said to have read the poem to his officers, declaring, ‘I would rather have been the author of that piece than beat the French tomorrow.’

It obviously struck a chord with you too, and there were stellar performances all round. Congratulations and commiserations to the following, who fell victim to a lack of space but are worthy runners-up: John Beaton, John Priestland, Katie Mallett, George Simmers, T.J. Rowland, Matt Quinn, Shirley Bunyan, G.M. Southgate and D.A. Prince.

Those printed below take £25. The bonus fiver is Chris O’Carroll’s.

Chris O’Carroll

Time was these mossy stones drew reverent

      throngs

As Sundays called the village to this place,

But years have hushed our common prayers and

      songs.

We thrive now on a different brand of grace.

Jazz concerts in this yard have we convened,

And readings by the poets of the shire,

About whose verses this much we have gleaned:

Few know of them and fewer still admire.

The ladies of our garden club, without

Their clothing, but discreetly screened by

      flowers,

Have done that calendar you’ve heard about,

Big seller in the gift shop. Check our hours.

Our website is the envy (deadly sin)

Of all who work ye olde nostalgia zone.

We’re finding ways to pull the punters in,

And Melancholy marks me for her own.

Julie Steiner

The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep

beneath this heaving, mould’ring turf, says Gray:

for them no more their busy housewives keep

their hearths and homes, for here is where they

      stay.

For them, these men whom Fame and Fortune

      failed

to lionise — the guiltless Cromwells, mute

inglorious Miltons, heroes who prevailed

against their tyrant fields, without repute

beyond their quaint community — we spare

some sympathy. We contemplate their graves.

We offer up this elegy. We care.

But what about those housewives, eh? Those

      slaves

who paced from laundry tubs to birthing beds

and back, whom Fame chose also to condemn

to unsung deeds and never-laurelled heads?

Not even Gray can spare a thought for them.

Martin Parker

A Planning Notice on our churchyard gate

Proclaims the end of God in Speckley Down,

His plot now destined for a tarmacked fate

As link-road for the motorway to town.

Soon men will come to move these lichened

      stones

And then in high-viz jackets dig our dead

To sacrifice the sanctity of bones

For faster trips to Sainsbury’s instead.

Then will our hallowed spot have sunk to this —

From golden gateway for celestial souls,

To quicker access to terrestrial bliss

Via tins of Beanz and BOGOF toilet rolls.

Alanna Blake

The little church surrenders to decay

Beside this half-forgotten resting-place,

Where once or twice lost sheep have gone astray

And cropped the grasses in a hallowed space

Pull back the ivy tendrils, scrape through moss

To where each stone emits a silent prayer,

Read in the worn-down letters loss on loss:

So many infant siblings buried there.

Six reverential yews for centuries

Have guarded safely all these loved remains;

Wild roses, rooted deep in memories,

Drop dew and petals on time’s spreading stains.

Creep through the heavy creaking door at last,

Breathe in the musty dimness for a while

And sense, inside this icon of the past,

The ghost of Philip Larkin in the aisle?

Bill Greenwell

The stones are furred with moss, and stand

      askew;

Inscriptions fox the eye, are blurred and worn;

The warden’s left, the gardener’s overdue;

At dusk, the local rooks pour forth their scorn.

Along the paths, and armed with their respects,

The cousins come, with box files in their cars:

Here is the boneyard in which each detects

Their forebears, those whose language they must

      parse.

The ground is stern, unyielding: birth and death,

The names, and salutations, seem erased —

Beneath the yews, the land is out of breath:

Too late, one feels, for such an eagle gaze.

At dusk, the strangers rev their old exhausts,

And leave the churchyard (‘This is where I’m

      from’):

The graveyard fades. Its occupants are sourced

More usefully on ancestry.com.

Hugh King

The mocking bleats of huddled downland sheep

Greet those who come to evensong tonight,

The dwindling few who quietly wish to keep

The glimmering embers of the faith alight.

The tower has stood for seven hundred years.

The font, of Purbeck stone, is older still.

And they endure, untouched by ovine jeers,

While darkness coolly falls on Shipton Hill.

The Nunc Dimittis and the grace release

Us to a Dorset dusk where headstones stare

And moles are left to spoil the turf in peace,

Their mounds to parody the man-made there.

Far from the twitterati’s egofest,

Where mobile-phone reception is not known,

The unsung fathers of this village rest,

And lichen writes their epitaphs on stone.

Your next challenge is to supply a short story entitled ‘Diary of a Superfluous Man’. Please email entries of up to 150 words to lucy@spectator.co.uk by midday on 23 March.