The Idea of Walsingham | Chris JonesPosted: July 14, 2012
I’ve never been to Walsingham. I’ve got to within about six miles of the village: an old white signpost with black lettering pointed the way. If I ever journeyed that way I would probably end up disappointed. For all its status as that most rare of things – a Catholic shrine, a place of holy pilgrimage in England – my feeling is I’d find it wholly underwhelming – that shot at chintzy religiosity, that sense of a miracle-ground somehow not quite believing in itself as special under those dull Norfolk skies. I literally like the sound of ‘Walsingham’ – the name itself has a mythic quality to it, a sense of England of old, an England that never really existed. More pertinently, I think I’m drawn to the idea of Walsingham as it is represented in the piece of literature that first drew my attention to its existence – Robert Lowell’s poem ‘A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.’ Alongside those rather far-off, alien descriptions of whaling around Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Lowell – all of a sudden – goes on an imaginative pilgrimage to England: ‘the world shall come to Walsingham’.
I do have an interest in places that are name-checked in literature – in poems, in particular, though I don’t go on expeditions to find these locations out. Better by far to come on East Coker by accident. I certainly don’t think of Larkin every time I step on the platform at Sheffield station (‘Dockery and Son’) though my head did turn once on a road out of Galway when I saw a sign for a village flagged up in Paul Muldoon’s ‘The Sonogram’: ‘on the road to Spiddal, a woman hitching a ride’. For ‘Spiddal’, Muldoon informs us, read ‘hospital’ (c.f. Spittle Hill in Sheffield; Spitalfields in London). Some of my most vivid memories – in this regard – are of coming on Irish place names with a literary connection. During a car ride from Belfast to Donegal I realised we were heading into territory mapped out by Seamus Heaney when we drove past Toome (see the poems ‘Toome’, ‘The Toome Road’, ‘At Toomebridge’). Perhaps more spectacularly for me – because it was so unexpected – I drove through Oughterard on a grey autumn afternoon back in the 1990s. Michael Furey, Gretta’s long deceased lover in James Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, came from Oughterard. As I drove through the town, I thought then and there that Michael wouldn’t be worrying himself over women like Gretta any more – he would be playing golf.
Occasionally I come on places that clarify or add texture to the readings of poems in which they are mentioned. The best example of this I can give relates to a work by W S Graham: ‘The Thermal Stair’. The poem begins:
I called today, Peter, and you were away.
I look out over Botallack and over Ding
Dong and Levant and over the jasper sea.
That ‘Ding / Dong’ used to throw me. Was Graham talking about a church and its bells or was he being whimsical, a manner he cultivates now and then in his writing? Nearing our destination on a long drive down to Zennor, Cornwall (Graham country) we stopped at the crossroads of some leafy lane and there, to my right, was a peeling sign pointing the way to Ding Dong. It had never occurred to me Ding Dong was an actual, constructed space, that it had the same kind of veracity and tenor as say Frome, Swindon, or Quorn. Go on, look it up, Ding Dong moor.
For all my interest in place names and poetry I don’t often pin my pieces explicitly to a locale, a parish, a street. I did write a sequence of poems about the River Don and named various districts of Sheffield as part of the process of tracking its journey through the city, but most of the time I don’t push towards this kind of poetry vérité. When I wrote the extended poem ‘Death and the Gallant’, a work concerned with pre-Reformation wall art and its destruction, I wondered about providing the action with a precise geographical ‘fix’. I ruminated on the idea of a hidden or remote valley somewhere but in the end decided against naming names in this broadest sense. A real location would have meant me knuckling down to do a lot more research about the environment, the lie of the land: I just wanted to get on and write the poem. For all this regional vagueness, there are two churches named in ‘Death and the Gallant’ in the hope that it embeds a line of authenticity into the narrative. I spent ages poring over possible saints and in the end came up with Saint Botolph’s (church one) because it’s a strange and wonderful name and Botolph was the patron saint of travellers, and Saint Anne’s (church two) because I wanted a saint with a monosyllabic name to accommodate the opening line of that particular section I was thinking about (‘Saint Anne’s. The Passion on a southern wall’). From thereon in, specificity only really occurs in other aspects of the poetry: the description of wall art decorating various (unnamed) churches, and what these images signified to people in seventeenth century England.
‘Death and the Gallant’ will appear in the forthcoming Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. Click here to read one of the poems in the sequence; to listen to Chris Jones reading two poems from ‘Death and the Gallant’, click here and here.
Listen to W S Graham reading ‘The Thermal Stair’ here.