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Word from Wormingford

07 October 2016

Ronald Blythe thinks of a Hardy novel, and of walks on Cornish cliffs

NEXT Sunday is harvest evensong, the churchwarden Meriel says. I must tell my old farmhouse. There is so little to remind it of its ancient purpose: the barns, the stackyard, the threshing floor. Just my garden and the tall ash trees which were once worshipped in Suffolk. But the church will be full of sheaves and fruit, fat vegetables, and generous gifts for poor folk in Colchester. Some of them hardly know how to exist in our economy. As for the fields, which face me, they feed horses for the most part. I see idle animals silhouetted at first light; then in full sight the morning sun shines on them.

When I was a boy, Father and I would tramp over stubble fields to his village church, where it was often hard to get a seat for harvest festival, then called harvest thanksgiving.

And I think of Parson Hawker, of Morwenstow, in Cornwall, who invented it, in a sense. Among much else which brought the faith to his wild parish, he suppressed the bac­chan­alian goings-on in the barns, and replaced the traditional harvest home with Christian gratitude for the fruits of the earth. Which nobody liked.

Maybe we shall see him in Poldark. His flowing blonde hair and nudity in the sea turned him into a merman where the locals were concerned. He was a wonderful poet, and an authoritarian priest who hoped to put a stop to wrecking, the cruel business of luring ships on to rocks and killing their crews in order to steal their rings.

Parson Hawker’s treatment of drowned sailors was to give them Christian burial in his churchyard and to make his parishioners come to the funerals. He wrote much debatable folk history, and also the ballad “The Song of the Western Men”, which includes the line “And shall Trelawney die?”

I remember dreaming about him as I walked the dizzy cliffs of north Cornwall once on Christmas Day, when a gale urged me along the narrow cliff paths, with the crashing Atlantic Ocean below me, and the screaming seagulls around me. They were scenes from Thomas Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, a wonderful book, which I want to re-read.

It contains the original cliff-hanger of fiction, when his heroine’s lover falls over a cliff and she tears her dress into strips so that she can make a rope to haul him to safety. It was serialised — just like Poldark — and readers had to wait a month for the next instalment and to find out whether the young man from London would escape death. He is a bourgeois prig: he is shocked to see his sweetheart’s body through the drenched skirts.

A Pair of Blue Eyes was Proust’s favourite Hardy novel. Hardy met his first wife in Cornwall. When she died, in 1912, he returned there for the first time to write some of the finest love poetry in the language.

Our harvest festival has taken me a great distance from the Stour Valley. It is what great local poets do to landscape — take you out of your own territory into theirs. Gazing at this border, I can hear the Atlantic at Land’s End.

It is Trinity 19: “The long long Sundays after Trinity . . . neither feast-day nor fast”. They are spa­cious, however, and they invite a wide vision, while that on TV is a horribly narrow one at this moment. Syria. Bombed hospitals. The suffer­ings of children. All of it cold-blooded and useless. How strange it is that we should keep our balance from whatever it is that prevents us from despair. The Psalms, all 150 of them, do this with their strong lessons on joy and hate. They were the Lord’s hymn-book, and how amazing it is to hear him singing, as so many did, as well as talking, especially on a warm English October afternoon, when there is no birdsong or wind to carry the Lord’s song to me, across the years.

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