The Pendragon Papers (5): Howarth Church & the Pilgrimage Poem

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Among the most noblest of poetic species, the Pilgrimage Poem has a unique spirit of its own. There is the physicality of actually visiting the shrine, & then the metaphysicality of the energy from the connection between the living & the dead poet. On my first tour of Italy, I visited both Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, & the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where Keats’ body & Shelley’s ashes are buried, the visitations of which made small imprints on my larger ‘Grand Tour’ sequence in Ottava Rima.

Distant Riviera di Levante
My heart’s destination, mine art’s true call,
But first, the mausoleum of Dante,
To tap into a predecessor soul,
Overgrown with moss & creeping ivy,
My man, you were the wildest of us all!
Ravenna, this may be a swift sojurn,
But one day, with my wife, I shall return.

With my lady sleepin’, thro’ the city,
I roam, a sweet sun illumines the streets,
A tranquil Protestant cemetary,
& Shelley’s tower, where my muse completes
Her visitation; I feel tired, empty,
But wait! As I stood by the grave of Keats
I surge with strength to try the train-jump home
& did one from the glory that was Rome.

A better example of an actual pilgrimage poem is that compos’d by William Worsdworth, as he recollected what he felt after visiting the grave of Robert Burns in Dumfries, among which stanzas we can read the following beautiful expressions of filial love, compos’d in the ever lyrical Standard Hubbie sestet of Burns’ native land.

I shiver, Spirit fierce and bold,
At thought of what I now behold:
As vapours breathed from dungeons cold
Strike pleasure dead,
So sadness comes from out the mould
Where Burns is laid.

Fresh as the flower, whose modest worth
He sang, his genius “glinted’ forth,
Rose like a star that touching earth,
For so it seems,
Doth glorify its humble birth
With matchless beams.

I mourned with thousands, but as one
More deeply grieved, for He was gone
Whose light I hailed when first it shone,
And showed my youth
How Verse may build a princely throne
On humble truth.

Alas! where’er the current tends,
Regret pursues and with it blends,–
Huge Criffel’s hoary top ascends
By Skiddaw seen,–
Neighbours we were, and loving friends
We might have been;

True friends though diversely inclined;
But heart with heart and mind with mind,
Where the main fibres are entwined,
Through Nature’s skill,
May even by contraries be joined
More closely still.

The tear will start, and let it flow;
Thou “poor Inhabitant below,’
At this dread moment–even so–
Might we together
Have sate and talked where gowans blow,
Or on wild heather.

What treasures would have then been placed
Within my reach; of knowledge graced
By fancy what a rich repast!
But why go on?–
Oh! spare to sweep, thou mournful blast,
His grave grass-grown.

Robbie Burns’ mausoleum, Dumfries

In the predominantly Protestant islands of Great Britain, it is rare to find an actual church taking on the mantle of a literary shrine. However, in the wilds of West Yorkshire, in the up & downy town of Howarth, there is such a church, for it houses the bodily remains of two of the three Bronte sisters, Charlotte (1816–1855) & Emily (1818–1848). Between the trio’s novels & poems flows the priceless magma upon which stands the soil of English Literature, & since their mortal passing, thousands on countless thousands of literary pilgrims, from all over the world, have honed in on this little stony corner of the Pennines.

They were brought to Howarth by their father, Patrick, in 1820, the first of 41 years as the incumbent Vicar of the Parish Church. Most of the Bronte family are interr’d within the family vault at the east end of Church, altho’ Anne Bronte is not, having died of tuberculosis in Scarborough, & being buried at St Mary’s Church in that seaside town. Anne had died in 1849, within a year of her sister Anne, & her only brother, Branwell; while Charlotte would die six years later, in March 1855. Two months later, a poem first appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, from the pen of Matthew Arnold, & can be seen as one of the earliest literary epitaphs to the Bronte family, outwith the paean to Charlotte there are also references to Anne, Branwell, Emily, and Patrick Brontë, in addition to Charlotte’s friend, the writer Harriet Martineau.

Arnold, one of the great Victorian heavyweight poets & earliest Brontëites, while they yet even liv’d, had visited Haworth in 1582, the latent experience of which was cauteriz’d into metrical existence by the death of Charlotte. In the three years between visit & composition, Arnold’s memory shifted somewhat, moving the family vault into the open air. When informed of his error by Elizabeth Gaskell, Arnold replied, “I am almost sorry you told me about the place of their burial. It really seems to me to put the finishing touch to the strange cross-grained character of the fortunes of that ill-fated family that they should even be placed after death in the wrong, uncongenial spot.” Arnold is perhaps ruminating here on how such a nature-loving family would find their bones coop’d up in a dark & gloomy place, rather than have their tombstones expos’d to the same wild weather as that which whipp’d thro Wuthering heights.

Haworth Churchyard by Matthew Arnold

Where, under Loughrigg, the stream
Of Rotha sparkles through fields
Vested for ever with green,
Four years since, in the house
Of a gentle spirit, now dead—
Wordsworth’s son-in-law, friend—
I saw the meeting of two
Gifted women. The one,
Brilliant with recent renown,
Young, unpractised, had told
With a master’s accent her feign’d
Story of passionate life;
The other, maturer in fame,
Earning, she too, her praise
First in fiction, had since
Widen’d her sweep, and survey’d
History, politics, mind.

The two held converse; they wrote
In a book which of world-famous souls
Kept the memorial;—bard,
Warrior, statesman, had sign’d
Their names; chief glory of all,
Scott had bestow’d there his last
Breathings of song, with a pen
Tottering, a death-stricken hand.

Hope at that meeting smiled fair.
Years in number, it seem’d,
Lay before both, and a fame
Heighten’d, and multiplied power.—
Behold! The elder, to-day,
Lies expecting from death,
In mortal weakness, a last
Summons! the younger is dead!

First to the living we pay
Mournful homage;—the Muse
Gains not an earth-deafen’d ear.

Hail to the steadfast soul,
Which, unflinching and keen,
Wrought to erase from its depth
Mist and illusion and fear!
Hail to the spirit which dared
Trust its own thoughts, before yet
Echoed her back by the crowd!
Hail to the courage which gave
Voice to its creed, ere the creed
Won consecration from time!

Turn we next to the dead.
—How shall we honour the young,
The ardent, the gifted? how mourn?
Console we cannot, her ear
Is deaf. Far northward from here,
In a churchyard high ‘mid the moors
Of Yorkshire, a little earth
Stops it for ever to praise.

Where, behind Keighley, the road
Up to the heart of the moors
Between heath-clad showery hills
Runs, and colliers’ carts
Poach the deep ways coming down,
And a rough, grimed race have their homes—
There on its slope is built
The moorland town. But the church
Stands on the crest of the hill,
Lonely and bleak;—at its side
The parsonage-house and the graves.

Strew with laurel the grave
Of the early-dying! Alas,
Early she goes on the path
To the silent country, and leaves
Half her laurels unwon,
Dying too soon!—yet green
Laurels she had, and a course
Short, but redoubled by fame.

And not friendless, and not
Only with strangers to meet,
Faces ungreeting and cold,
Thou, O mourn’d one, to-day
Enterest the house of the grave!
Those of thy blood, whom thou lov’dst,
Have preceded thee—young,
Loving, a sisterly band;
Some in art, some in gift
Inferior—all in fame.
They, like friends, shall receive
This comer, greet her with joy;
Welcome the sister, the friend;
Hear with delight of thy fame!

Round thee they lie—the grass
Blows from their graves to thy own!
She, whose genius, though not
Puissant like thine, was yet
Sweet and graceful;—and she
(How shall I sing her?) whose soul
Knew no fellow for might,
Passion, vehemence, grief,
Daring, since Byron died,
That world-famed son of fire—she, who sank
Baffled, unknown, self-consumed;
Whose too bold dying song
Stirr’d, like a clarion-blast, my soul.

Of one, too, I have heard,
A brother—sleeps he here?
Of all that gifted race
Not the least gifted; young,
Unhappy, eloquent—the child
Of many hopes, of many tears.
O boy, if here thou sleep’st, sleep well!
On thee too did the Muse
Bright in thy cradle smile;
But some dark shadow came
(I know not what) and interposed.

Sleep, O cluster of friends,
Sleep!—or only when May,
Brought by the west-wind, returns
Back to your native heaths,
And the plover is heard on the moors,
Yearly awake to behold
The opening summer, the sky,
The shining moorland—to hear
The drowsy bee, as of old,
Hum o’er the thyme, the grouse
Call from the heather in bloom!
Sleep, or only for this
Break your united repose!

The meeting with Harriet Martineau & Charlotte Bronte which inspir’d the poem took place in December 1850, the poet describing the event in a letter to Miss Wightman on 21 December. The book refer;d to is Rotha Quillinan’s album. He seems to be mistaken in placing the meeting at the house of Ed. Quillinan. The letter to Miss Wightman implies that it took place at Fox How, & this is confirm’d by Charlotte Bronte’s own account of the meeting in a letter to James Taylor of 15 January 1851. She found Arnold’s manner displeasing from its seeming foppery, & ‘the shade of Dr Arnold seem’d to frown on his young representative,’ But she admitted he ‘improv’d on acquaintance,’ while ‘ere long a real modesty appeared under his assumed conceit, and some genuine intellectual aspirations as well as high educational acquirements, displaced superficial affectations. I was given to understand that his theological opinions were very vague and unsettled, and indeed he betrayed as much in the course of conversation.

Mrs. Gaskell, in her Life of Charlotte Brontë (ch. 23), prints part of another letter: “Your account of Mr. Arnold tallies exactly with Miss Martineau’s. She, too, said that placidity and mildness (rather than originality and power) were his external characteristics. She described him as a combination of the antique Greek sage with the European modern man of science. Perhaps it was mere perversity in me to get the notion that torpid veins, and a cold, slow-beating heart, lay under his marble outside. But he is a materialist: he serenely denies us our hope of immortality, and quietly blots from man’s future Heaven and the Life to come. That is why a savor of bitterness seasoned my feelings towards him.

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold to Frances Lucy Wightman
19 December 1850 Fox How, Ambleside
Thursday Night, [December 19, 1850]

We left town in pouring rain—came into light snow at Blisworth—deep snow at Tamworth—thaw at Whitmore—storm of wind at Warrington, and hard frost at Preston. This last continues. I drove over from Windermere here—6 miles—in the early morning—along the lake, and arrived like an icicle. . . . Only my mother and my youngest sister are at home. I heard family letters read—talked a little—read a Greek book—lunched—read Bacon’s Essays—wrote.

Matthew Arnold to Frances Lucy Wightman, 21 December 1850
Fox How
December 21, 1850

At seven came Miss Martineau1 and Miss Bronté (Jane Eyre); talked to Miss Martineau (who blasphemes frightfully) about the prospects of the Church of England, and, wretched man that I am, promised to go and see her cow-keeping miracles to-morrow—I, who hardly know a cow from a sheep. I talked to Miss Bronté (past thirty and plain, with expressive gray eyes, though) of her curates, of French novels, and her education in a school at Brussels, and sent the lions roaring to their dens at half-past nine, and came to talk to you.

For Harriet Martineau, Ambleside neighbor and family friend since 1846, see above p. 95 n. 5; Charlotte Brontë (1816–55: DNB), who had published Jane Eyre in 1847 and Shirley in 1849, was visiting her. Together, they had already seen Arnold on the same day at Edward Quillinan’s, where the two ladies signed Rotha Quillinan’s album—“a truly pleasant day,” wrote Harriet Martineau, “no one being there in addition to the family but Mr Arnold from Fox How and ourselves.” The talk “of her curates” is “our only evidence that Arnold had read Shirley as well as Jane Eyre.”

Our second poem comes from a hardly remember’d poetess, Charlotte Mann Beaumont Oates, who left a lengthy oeuvre of perhaps not the greatest poetry in the world, but definitely interesting for its coverage of the late nineteenth century, lets a say a more polish’d William McGonagall. Queen Victoria herself acknowledged 2 of Charlotte’s poems: an elegy on the death of Princess Alice in 1879, and an ode on the Queen’s Jubilee in 1887. Her first poems were publish’d in Blackpool newspapers, with more poems appearing later in periodicals all across Lancashire & Yorkshire – a true Cross-Pennine poet Among her many compositions is a poem entitl’d ‘On hearing of the intended demolition of Haworth Old Church, the burial place of Charlotte Bronte.’ In the poem, Oates mentions the fact that Charlotte Bronte died only five months into her married life, yet another tragedy among the many that struck the most brilliant literary family the British Isles have ever seen.

Hold! Your sacrilegious hands;
Touch not the venerated pile;
Let is stand, so quaint & ancient,
For its dear associations –
Think of those who trod its aisle.

Pause & think; then touch it not;
For ‘neath tat sacred tomb there sleeps,
One whose memory still we cherish,
She whoe life-work ne’er will perish,
And for whom the world still weeps.

From that ever fertile brain,
Emanated thoughts sublime;-
Gave the world a priceless largess,-
Twined a mighty wreath immortal,
Round that temple, marked with time.

Noble inspirations grand
Flowed with vigour from that pen;
Gave her works a soul-born pathos,
Tinged anon with fiery spirit,
True to nature, & to men.

And her sister rests with her,
Gifted with a talent rare;
Lived their separate lives for others,
In one grave beneath that tablet-
Slumber now the sister there.

Once within this village quiet,
The light of genius shone around;
Now it woos the world unto it,
Where the mortal dust reposeth,
Underneath that hallow’d ground.

Sparks of genius kindled here
Won them all a world-wide fame;
Near that sacred pile abiding,
Yonder moorland wild with heather
Fann’d them to a shining flame.

Honoured as their resting place,
Spare, oh! Save it from destruction;
Hold it yet in veneration-
Ytreasured relic of the past:

Let not ruthless hands destroy,
That sacred edifice so grey;
‘Tis the one our country loveth,
Emblem of the bygone ages,
Built by hands long passed away.

Once upon her bridal morn,
She knelt before that altar there;
Gave her hand to him who loved her,
Genius then her brow encircled,-
While she breathed the holy prayer.

Then alas! within a year,
In sable garments moving slow;-
There was seen a sad procession
Seek that place so dim & solemn,
In the tomb they laid her low.

Keep it, for the live we bear,
None agin her place can fill;
There the dead in peace reposeth,
Softly tread, thy voice subduing,
Hold that altar sacred still.

All the village worthies old,
Ever prize it more & more;
Monument of their ancestors;
Spot wherein they love to worship,-
Their forefathers went before.

Many have been baptised there,
Wedded at that altar old;-
Then in other years were carried,
In that peaceful churchyard buried
In the earth so damp & cold.

Oh! Retain it for their sake,
Let not hands its walls efface;
Let not then their every vestige,
Dwell alone in memories vista,
Leave us yet that single trace.

Leave it but decay with time,
‘Tis the wish that thousands crave;
At the shrine of genius bowing,
Bending low with softened feeling,-
Paying tribute o’er that grave.

Sacred to her memory dear,
Who liveth, tho’ her soul is fled:
Precious is the spot she haunted-
Save it;- for the love of Heaven!-
Hear the voice that mourns the dead.

Alas, this poem did not have the desired effect, for despite a huge community uproar in Howarth, & in newspapers all across the country in 1879, the new rector, John Wade, was determin’d to knock down the old church. A long battle ensued, which managed to save the tower. The bodies of the Brontes lie beneath it,


So, the Pilgrimage Poem, the composition of which is an important part of any poet’s development, one in which they will feel a part of the grander tradition & also to understand that one does not liveth forever. Just being at the shrine brings the deceas’d poet back to consciousness in some way, extracting poesis from the very sepulchre where life no longer lives.



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