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Word from Wormingford

10 July 2015

Ronald Blythe and a fellow author visit the grave of a poet

DUNCAN’s men are making hay on the horizon. Their toy-like machine topples along the field. Tall grasses go in at one end, and oblongs emerge from the other. The ecstasies of Colin’s little French dog as it follows the reaper fill the entire landscape.

It is Trinity 3, and I have read, "Grant that we, to whom thou hast given an hearty desire to pray, may by thy mighty aid be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities."

At matins, I tell them about St Etheldreda, an East Anglian lady who managed a monastery for both sexes at Ely where the cathedral now stands, its mighty lantern precariously held aloft by vast oak beams to illuminate the fens. And us, of course.

An age ago now, the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner came to visit me. I had praised her wonderful novel The Corner That Held Them. It was about three medieval women who had escaped marriage to three illiterate knights by taking the veil, their only regret being unable to celebrate holy communion, and having to put up with an ignorant priest. I talked to Sylvia about it as we sat by my fire. It was spitting hulver (holly) sparks.

Later, we drove to see the grave of Edward FitzGerald in the darkening afternoon. I often visited it in St Michael and All Angels, Boulge, just a mile or two from my house. It was engraved "It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves," which may have been the poet’s answer to the curious figure he presented to the village.

And, as a boy, I learned the whole of his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by heart. He would have walked past my old house, although not in many of the village lanes in which he composed; for they had been flattened and straightened out to make a bomber base in the Second World War.

A Cornish boy had given me his enchanting poem. His grave tilts a little in the Suffolk soil. Omar Khayyám lived at about the same time as our Norman conquest, and was a Persian astronomer. FitzGerald was an Anglo-Irish gentleman who lived in the lodge to his brother’s Suffolk mansion. He wrote perfect letters, and sailed his yacht off Woodbridge.

For a quarter of a century, I lived in his partly war-wrecked countryside, which nature was taking over. There were noisy rookeries and cracked concrete American runways, which the farmers have now pulled up to replant with sugar beet and corn. For, as the prophet said, for everything there is a season. One for ladies who preferred a cell to warring men, somewhere to sing and write, garden and chatter, write forbidden books, and not die in childbed.

All the roses have come out at once in my garden. The Old English and French roses with their heady scents and their sumptuous blooms, which are too heavy for their stems. They are not for cutting, and will begin to die in a night, when brought inside. The languid white cat sleeps her lives away in their perfumed shade.

As the breadwinner, I can only look down on this perfumed sprawl of things from my study, watch the haymaking, and think of Napoleon, two centuries after Waterloo. Both William Hazlitt and John Clare were heartbroken when he lost the battle. "Thy fate, thy monument and fame, links thee with names that cannot fade or die," the latter wrote.

The longing for some kind of revolution in English society was great, if mysterious now to us. "Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!" was FitzGerald’s advice.

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