The Works of Lord Byron (ed. Coleridge, Prothero)/Poetry/Volume 4/Churchill's Grave
I stood beside the grave of him who blazed
The Comet of a season, and I saw
The humblest of all sepulchres, and gazed
With not the less of sorrow and of awe
On that neglected turf and quiet stone,
With name no clearer than the names unknown,
Which lay unread around it; and I asked
The Gardener of that ground, why it might be
That for this plant strangers his memory tasked,
Through the thick deaths of half a century;10
And thus he answered—"Well, I do not know
Why frequent travellers turn to pilgrims so;
He died before my day of Sextonship,
And I had not the digging of this grave"
And is this all? I thought,—and do we rip
The veil of Immortality, and crave
I know not what of honour and of light
Through unborn ages, to endure this blight?
So soon, and so successless? As I said,
The Architect of all on which we tread,20
For Earth is but a tombstone, did essay
To extricate remembrance from the clay,
Whose minglings might confuse a Newton's thought,
Were it not that all life must end in one,
Of which we are but dreamers;—as he caught
As 'twere the twilight of a former Sun
Thus spoke he,—"I believe the man of whom
You wot, who lies in this selected tomb,
Was a most famous writer in his day,
And therefore travellers step from out their way30
To pay him honour,—and myself whate'er
Your honour pleases:"—then most pleased I shook
From out my pocket's avaricious nook
Some certain coins of silver, which as 'twere
Perforce I gave this man, though I could spare
So much but inconveniently:—Ye smile,
I see ye, ye profane ones! all the while,
Because my homely phrase the truth would tell.
You are the fools, not I—for I did dwell
With a deep thought, and with a softened eye,40
On that old Sexton's natural homily,
In which there was Obscurity and Fame,—
The Glory and the Nothing of a Name.
First published, Prisoner of Chillon, etc., 1816.]
- [Charles Churchill was born in February, 1731, and died at Boulogne, November 4, 1764. The body was brought to Dover and buried in the churchyard attached to the demolished church of St. Martin-le-Grand ("a small deserted cemetery in an obscure lane behind [i.e. above] the market"). See note by Charles De la Pryme, Notes and Queries, 1854, Series I. voL x. p. 378). There is a tablet to his memory on the south wall of St. Mary's Church, and the present headstone in the graveyard (it was a "plain headstone" in 1816) bears the following inscription:—
Here lie the remains of the celebrated
'Life to the last enjoy'd, here Churchill lies.'"
Churchill had been one of Byron's earlier models, and the following lines from The Candidate, which suggested the epitaph (lines 145-154), were, doubtless, familiar to him:—
"Let one poor sprig of Bay around my head
Bloom whilst I live, and point me out when dead;
Let it (may Heav'n indulgent grant that prayer)
Be planted on my grave, nor wither there;
And when, on travel bound, some rhyming guest
Roams through the churchyard, whilst his dinner's drest,
Let it hold up this comment to his eyes;
Life to the last enjoy'd, here Churchill lies;
Whilst (O, what joy that pleasing flatt'ry gives)
Reading my Works he cries—here Churchill lives."
Byron spent Sunday, April 25, 1816, at Dover. He was to sail that night for Ostend, and, to while away the time, "turned to Pilgrim" and thought out, perhaps began to write, the lines which were finished three months later at the Campagne Diodati.
"The Grave of Churchill," writes Scott (Quarterly Review, October, 1816), "might have called from Lord Byron a deeper commemoration; for, though they generally differed in character and genius, there was a resemblance between their history and character.... both these poets held themselves above the opinion of the world, and both were followed by the fame and popularity which they seemed to despise. The writings of both exhibit an inborn, though sometimes ill-regulated, generosity of mind, and a spirit of proud independence, frequently pushed to extremes. Both carried their hatred of hypocrisy beyond the verge of prudence, and indulged their vein of satire to the borders of licentiousness."
Save for the affectation of a style which did not belong to him, and which in his heart he despised, Byron's commemoration of Churchill does not lack depth or seriousness. It was the parallel between their lives and temperaments which awoke reflection and sympathy, and prompted this "natural homily." Perhaps, too, the shadow of impending exile had suggested to his imagination that further parallel which Scott deprecated, and deprecated in vain, "death in the flower of his age, and in a foreign land."]
- [On the sheet containing the original draft of these lines Lord Byron has written, "The following poem (as most that I have endeavoured to write) is founded on a fact; and this detail is an attempt at a serious imitation of the style of a great poet—its beauties and its defects: I say the style; for the thoughts I claim as my own. In this, if there be anything ridiculous, let it be attributed to me, at least as much as to Mr. Wordsworth: of whom there can exist few greater admirers than myself. I have blended what I would deem to be the beauties as well as defects of his style; and it ought to be remembered, that, in such things, whether there be praise or dispraise, there is always what is called a compliment, however unintentional." There is, as Scott points out, a much closer resemblance to Southey's "English Eclogues, in which moral truths are expressed, to use the poet's own language, 'in an almost colloquial plainness of language,' and an air of quaint and original expression assumed, to render the sentiment at once impressive and picquant."]
"The under-earth inhabitants—are they
But mingled millions decomposed to clay?"
A Fragment, lines 23, 24, vide post, p. 52.
It is difficult to "extricate" the meaning of lines 19-25, but, perhaps, they are intended to convey a hope of immortality. "As I was speaking, the sexton (the architect) tried to answer my question by taxing his memory with regard to the occupants of the several tombs. He might well be puzzled, for 'Earth is but a tombstone,' covering an amalgam of dead bodies, and, unless in another life soul were separated from soul, as on earth body is distinct from body, Newton himself, who disclosed 'the turnpike-road through the unpaved stars' (Don Juan, Canto X. stanza ii. line 4), would fail to assign its proper personality to any given lump of clay."]
"But here [i.e. in 'the realm of death'] all is
So shadowy and so full of twilight, that
It speaks of a day past."
Cain, act ii sc. 2.]
- ["Selected," that is, by "frequent travellers" (vide supra, line l2).]
—— then most pleased, I shook
My inmost pocket's most retired nook,
And out fell five and sixpence.—[MS.]