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Poetry

Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire

Near Saint John’s Church, a ridge,
A Roman road, where people drove
Cattle to Cambridge market,
Pheasant roam the rows and roads
Everywhere ancient common ways:
From Sawtry, through the fields, a path
(Across a field of yellow)
Still on a local map, with gates
That you might take and close.

Different bricks give evidence
Of age and order. Near the altar
Everything’s oldest, and they brought
The altar itself down to stand
Among the people with the priest
Who faced them, to their north.

These were no Roman epicures.
Like them, though, set apart,
They left the state to its designs
And in a web of friendship held
Trembling, the fly of greed,
Mortifying the body’s need,
Measuring their meat with weights,
“Watches,” praying the psalms at night,
Nicholas sleeping on a board—
Medicine, bandages for the poor.
Poor boys who learned their Psalters earned
Pennies to spend or hoard.

Women with scissors bound and glued
Counter-reformation prints
With Gospel passages to make
A book of “Harmonies.”
Playing Socratic dialogues
They wrote in character
(In history they read
The hand of God in enemies
Rewarded for humility)
And musical interludes
In the Great Room, long since burned down,
Some “forty paces from the church.”

The king and court they fled
Came to them near the end.
Before Hampton Court or the trial
Charles sought solace here.

They passed their manuscripts with friends,
Susanna’s found in George’s hands
After he died. Nicholas, too,
Died early, his disease
Chronicled in letters as
Inscrutable as symptoms marked
By spots and agues, his despair
Doubled by the will’s remorse.

Bathsheba thought them all rank mad
And fled after her husband’s death
To London, on a wagon, in the hay,
John’s brother Nicholas
In the end burning
The plays and poems of his youth.
The fires set the locals talking
Of witches, spells, and devils.

Prayer, valid everywhere,
By grace is the place
In which they rest and race.

In green April, I make my pilgrimage,
Smoke from refuse rising before
Prospects of hills and two spires,
The small pond winking through a copse,
Knee-high grass over the leaning stones,
Broken, illegible lines
Bowing to kiss their dust; inside—
An eagle (on which sits
The still Word) cleansed of the mire
Of the small pond, full centuries
Of water, lustrous brass again.
Talons on rock, the eagle lifts,
Resolute, stoic, in a sty
Where Mother Ferrar made their table,
The idol of iconoclasts
And heaven’s honey, the heart’s rest,
Exiled hope and wilderness.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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