Friday, March 23, 2012

Crowds Of Buried Memories Sleep

John Clare could well talk of "crowds of buried memories." His life was ragged. Nearly half of it was spent confined to assylums, which in the early 1800's were not the comfy dorms that we now know. Memories he had, and to spare--many of them worth keeping buried.

Clare's poem, THOUGHTS IN A CHURCH-YARD, (1835) is quite obviously playing off Thomas Gray's better known ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD (1750). It would at first appear that Clare had written a sort of "Cliff Notes" version of Gray's. He replays it all: the quiet spot, death's way of raising the poor and humbling the mighty, etc. And if we were to miss the similarities, Clare trumpets his borrowing by his very title.

And yet, they are not the same at all. For Gray those beneath the ground are most definitely other people. Great and poor are under the soil. And them being there gives him occasion to philosophize about life and death and the great sweeping justice that handles great and humble alike.

With Clare, on the other hand, the graveyard seems to conjur not so much a philosophical meditation as a passionate longing for the release, the calming, the end of tensions. Life had overcome him. It seems far more personal than Gray's.


AH! happy spot, how still it seems
Where crowds of buried memories sleep;
How quiet Nature o’er them dreams,
’Tis but our troubled thoughts that weep.
Life’s book shuts here—its page is lost
With them, and all its busy claims,
The poor are from its memory crost,
The rich leave nothing but their names.

There rest the weary from their toil;
There lie the troubled, free from care;
Who through the strife of life’s turmoil
Sought rest, and only found it there.
With none to fear his scornful brow,
There sleeps the master with the slave;
And heedless of all titles now,
Repose the honoured and the brave.

There rest the miser and the heir,
Both careless who their wealth shall reap;
E’en love finds cure for heart-aches here,
And none enjoys a sounder sleep.
The fair one far from folly’s freaks,
As quiet as her neighbour seems,
Unconscious now of rosy cheeks,
Without a rival in her dreams.

Strangers alike to joy and strife,
Heedless of all its past affairs.
They’re blotted from the list of life,
And absent from its teazing cares.
Grief, joy, hope, fear, and all their crew
That haunt the memory’s living mind,
Ceased, when they could no more pursue,
And left a painless blank behind.

Life’s ignis fatuus light is gone,
No more to lead their hopes astray;
Care’s poisoned cup is drain’d and done,
And all its follies past away.
The bill’s made out, the reck’ning paid,
The book is cross’d, the business done;
On them the last demand is made,
And heaven’s eternal peace is won.

Almost seems more of an echo of Solomon than of Gray:

And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 4:2-3

Click on John Clare's name in the labels below, for other of his poems I've posted.

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