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Word from Wormingford

19 June 2015

Ronald Blythe ponders immortality, and the unemployed horse

IMMORTALITY is a word that has a fine ring to it. It rolls round the tongue like a song. Once upon a time, all the talk was of it. When I was a boy, poor folk who could not afford gravestones made do with clasped china hands, and unfading china flowers under a glass dome in the churchyard.

When an Italian family included a photograph, we didn't know where to look. It was so intimate, so obviously un-immortal. To look into the usually youthful face could be upsetting - and it was no relation of ours. Instead of reassuring us of life everlasting, it seemed to speak frankly of decay. For, in no time, the white hands stained, and the white petals became brown, and the entire memorial was obviously due for the bumby-heap.

Does the Churchyards Handbook allow for "Immortelles"? Has it even heard of them? They belong to the glass-domes era, when clocks ticked away beneath shades, and artificial flowers were believed to be the immortal answer to a wreath. In Ancient Greece, the victor's laurels hung from his tombstone until its leaves dropped, one by one, to the earth. No one took its tattered honours away.

My favourite immortality poem is William Cory's "Heraclitus". What lasts about our lives is the talk of those who lived it with us. When St John was very old, the young would plead with him to tell them how Jesus spoke, and what he looked like. Only to be answered with, "Little children, love one another." Which must have been irritating.

But, in "Heraclitus", death cannot silence a once heard voice:


They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.


And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.


Christ's friends pestered him about the afterlife. Might her sons sit on either side of him in heaven, a mother asked. And there was the inevitable question about remarriage, and which marriage stood in paradise.

All in all, Christ's message is "Live this life" for all you are worth. Don't look back, and don't look forward. Live today. Live it in its entirety. Family and friends, although their bones may be as white as porcelain hands, remain warm flesh and blood within us. As for their voices, who can silence these?

And, as for Jean's horses on the hill, why do their muzzles touch? Why do they stand motionless by the hour? Haven't they anything to do? The answer is no. For the first time in centuries, horses never do a thing - and these on a farm! On a Sunday morning, en route to church, you might meet one carrying a girl - never a boy - or standing still as a glittering pack of cyclists pass.

Now and then I dig up a horseshoe lost during ploughing, and hang it on the fence. And, talking of pleasant voices, I think I hear horses swigging at the pond in the mid-afternoon, when the day's work is done. Huge, grateful gulps. The horseman standing by. For horses came before humans then. Precedence on earth, precedence in heaven. And men and beasts in conversation. And toil and rest.

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