May 15, 2010

Bunhill Fields and beyond

Walking to play football near Old Street, London, I passed through Bunhill Fields, a small cemetery for 17th and 18th century Non-Conformists and Dissenters. I heard a little girl ask her father "Why do they bury people?", and he said "Well they have to put them somewhere."

I suppose it's a sign of age that I find cemeteries friendly and welcoming as I slip into something like the Hindu 3rd stage of life when "one gradually withdraws from the world, freely shares wisdom with others, and prepares for the complete renunciation of the final stage."

I prefer cemeteries which allow nature to feed off the graves, moss-eaten English country churchyards, rather than the tidy type I find in America. I also like cemeteries which offer sublime views to their guests as sometimes in France. I myself hope to end up ground to dust in a high glacier somewhere or as fishfood by a coral reef.
Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

At Bunhill Fields lies John Bunyan, author of the allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come.
The images Bunyan uses in Pilgrim's Progress are but reflections of images from his own world; the strait gate is a version of the wicket gate at Elstow church, the Slough of Despond is a reflection of Squitch Fen, a wet and mossy area near his cottage in Harrowden, the Delectable Mountains are an image of the Chiltern Hills surrounding Bedfordshire. Even his characters, like the Evangelist as influenced by John Gifford, are reflections of real people. This pilgrimage was not only real for Bunyan as he lived it, but his portrait evoked this reality for his readers. Rudyard Kipling once referred to Bunyan as “the father of the novel, salvation's first Defoe.”

Another long-term resident is Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, sometimes considered the first novel in English; also of Moll Flanders and Journal of the Plague Year.
In Defoe's early life he experienced first-hand some of the most unusual occurrences in English history: in 1665, 70,000 were killed by the Great Plague of London. On top of all these catastrophes, the Great Fire of London (1666) hit Defoe's neighborhood hard, leaving only his and two other homes standing in the area. In 1667, when Defoe was probably about seven years old, a Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway via the River Thames and attacked Chatham. All of this happened before Defoe was around seven years old, and by the time he was about thirteen years old, Defoe's mother had died.
Defoe's later life was also eventful:
“No man in England but Defoe ever stood in the pillory and later rose to eminence among his fellow men.”

And most modest in monument, but most splendid in works is William Blake, arguably both the greatest English lyric poet and the greatest English artist. Wordsworth said:
There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.
It is reported that on the day of his death
Blake worked relentlessly on his Dante series. Eventually...he ceased working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her, Blake is said to have cried, "Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me." Having completed this portrait (now lost), Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses. At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always. Blake died.

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun


Ancient of Days

Auguries of Innocence

Since we're on the subject of graves, let me add some images from my archive:

The grave of Oscar Wilde in Paris
Also in Pere Lachaise cemetery

Karl Marx is buried at Highgate Cemetery in London and the Communist Party of Great Britain erected this suitably colossal and revolting memorial

In Exeter, New Hampshire

Last a phrase in a cemetery in east London