Monday, December 17, 2007

Nineteen century Poetry on Barrows

Ashen Hill Barrows 'excavated' by Skinner

The following extract is taken from The Reverend Charles Woolls' Barrow Diggers (1839)
Sepulchrum Tumulus Signat

Triumphant Death on his pale horse,
Hath boundless power to slay,
With hunger, sword, or sad remorse,
Whate'er returns to clay.

But still all Nature pleads in strains,
Which touch the tender heart,
Oh! Spurn not, spurn not the remains,

Of those who've felt the dart!

A grave the Patriarchs demand,
As strangers for their race,
The pyramids in Egypt's land,
Proclaim a resting place.

A lofty mound of earth declares

Interred their slain with care
And who shall disregard their pains
Or funeral rites impair.

for sacred are those spots of ground,
Which to the dead we give,
At the last day the trump shall sound,
And their dry bones shall live.

A good article on barrows can be found at the following link;
And of course Reverend John Skinner also wrote dire poetry, he seems best remembered for a long and doleful poem called 'Beth Pennard or The British Chieftan's Grave'
John Thurnham's article Examinations of Barrows on the Downs of North Wiltshire 1853-1857, describe a barrow 5 miles from Devizes heading towards Beckhampton, for the particular barrow Skinner's poem is attributed to...
The feet beneath the verdant glade
by Bards a narrow cist is made
yet ample to contain
Those listless limbs, in speed and force
Which rival'd once the fleetest horse,
Light bounding o'er the plain.
Now filled the hallowed cup of clay
Withdrew from Cromlech's summit grey
Last night procured in locks of wool,
Filled it with care and filled it full,
Such beverage suits etherial sprite
Ere it ascends to realms of light.
Place it contiguous to the head
And o'er its mouth a covering spread.......
To a kind chief, who will revere
A chieftains relics buried here
One who with us delights to ken
The ancient works of Celtic man;
Who makes their labours by his own
Survive, when falls each magic stone,
or roaring midst the hills and groves,
View scenes which every Druid loves
The cup our benefactors hand...
The cup in question is a rather beautifully decorated beaker cup, and though Skinner sees is as a beverage to suit an 'ethieral sprite', could it not be that this chieftan is the forerunner of those males that frequent pubs today, taking with him his glass of good cheer or ale to the liminal world beyond. And may one ask,would there indeed have been ale in this 'otherworld'. Many bronze age barrows do have these 'beaker' cups, and hopefully a leg of pork was also added so that he would not go hungry on his journey.
And Now to the last of my victorian poets, William Lisle Bowles, vicar of Bremhill for the last 25 years of his life. Again he is cited as having written something on barrows, but to date I have'nt found this particular poem. As Bremhill is a short distance from Calne, and therefore Avebury, it would have been thought that he would have visited and written about such places. But obviously history is not one of his subjects, he did indeed write a lot of poetry, the following link will take you to his book,
but though a better poet than Skinner, skimming through all I came across was 'Hymn to Woden'. Some of these barrow poems are to be found in Colt Hoare's Ancient Wiltshire.
Working ones way through Victorian poetry, is often a dismal occupation, vicars are probably the worst; their sense of death and tragedy is strongly felt, and the mode of writing is somewhat pretentious. What stands out maybe, is how the books they read, classical allusions to Roman and Greek deities, tend to pass us by, but what is also interesting is the Druidical theme that stemmed from the 18th century. Stuart Piggott in his book The Druids is contemptuous of this 'new age' revival of the celtic religion, it is after all somewhat xenophobic, and to my mind the wilful eagerness to rob 'heathen' barrows of the 'treasures', that they may or may not have held, is a similar contempt for paganism.

Stonehenge barrows
Eight Ashen Hill barrows with the Nine barrows to the right of Moss

Lansdown Barrows

ref; Journals of a Somerset Rector 1803-1835 - John Skinner
Ancient Burial Mounds - L.V.Grinsell
The Druids - Stuart Piggott

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