Outside the west door of St Mary’s church in Shrewsbury is a stone plaque. It reads:
Let this small Monument record the name
Of CADMAN, and to future times proclaim
How by’n attempt to fly from this high spire
Across the Sabrine stream he did acquire
His fatal end. ‘Twas not for want of skill
Or courage to perform the task he fell:
No, no, a faulty Cord being drawn too tight
Hurried his Soul on high to take her flight
Which bid the Body here beneath good Night.
Febry 2nd 1739 aged 28
This careful, clumsy verse presents visitors to St Mary’s with a fantastical tale of tragic heroism on a mythical scale. The trite comparison made between Cadman’s attempt to fly physically and his spiritual flight to heaven is an unconvincing attempt to round off the tale neatly. He had intended (according to a handbill circulated in the town some days earlier) ‘to fly off St Mary’s spire, over the Severn … firing two pistols and performing tricks upon the wire which will be very diverting to the spectators’. His short flight and fall illustrate what Kermode (1967, p. 25) refers to as the perpetual ‘state of crisis’ of our lives. We hurtle from birth to death, attempting to make meaning by imposing linear narratives on events and circumstances which otherwise seem unredeemed and even wasteful.
How would it have felt to have been there, to have seen Icarus fall from the sky, from beneath the third tallest spire in England to a sudden, public and vainglorious death in the shadow of God? To imagine Cadman’s fall from the ‘faulty Cord’ stretched from spire to riverbank, a rope which frayed against the church’s rough stonework, is to see a Miltonic trajectory of pride turned to anguish. And now, this proud church from which he stepped has itself been attributed an ending. The eleventh century architects building on the site of a Saxon church must have hoped their monument would endure until the Second Advent. But ‘In our beginning is our end,’ wrote TS Eliot in East Coker. St Mary’s, which has absorbed and reflected Shrewsbury’s temporal and spiritual imaginings for nine centuries, has endured an apparent fall, joining the list of churches declared redundant by the Church of England in 1987, a list which grows by 30 names each year. Regarded as an important church architecturally, St Mary’s has not been converted into desirable living space, nor an arts centre or offices, but is now managed by the Churches Conservation Trust, set up in 1969 to ‘preserve churches no longer needed for worship’. And what is a church if it is no longer needed for worship? What do we make of this building, whose apocalypse, unlike Cadman’s, turned out to be ‘consciously false’ (Kermode, 1967, p. 42)?
In Church Going, Philip Larkin wrestles with his reluctant response to a church building, not a redundant one, but one which has the feel of decay. He enters, ‘Once I am sure there is nothing going on’, only a ‘tense, musty, unignorable silence’. Mid-poem, he ‘sign(s) the book, donate(s) an Irish sixpence, / Reflect(s) the place was not worth stopping for’:
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering too
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show …’
Demise, loss and regret: the themes of Larkin’s poems, a voice of twentieth century England often also full of scorn. But Larkin comes round, in the small space of his poem, relenting a little, admitting that this church is a ‘special shell’ and ‘a serious house on serious earth … / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, / Are recognised, and robed as destinies.’
John Betjeman urges ‘Stop the trolley-bus stop!’ when it is passing St Saviour’s Aberdeen Park, Highbury, London N1. Despite the obvious differences in belief and poetic style between Larkin and Betjeman, there is some similarity in the regretful tone of this poem which describes the ‘great red church of my parents, cruciform crossing they knew’. In 1980, before Betjeman’s death, St Saviour’s was declared redundant, and closed. For Betjeman and Larkin alike, there were no neat endings.
We seek less and less the routine worship of a God most cannot trust to exist; but whether surreptitiously like Larkin, or flamboyantly like Betjeman, or out of complex necessity like the poet-priest RS Thomas, we may nevertheless be inclined to enter churches and look around. Declared redundant or not, they lie like flotsam on the shores of our towns, villages and cities, like so much driftwood on the shore of what Matthew Arnold called ‘The Sea of Faith’ whose retreat he describes in the poem, Dover Beach. If we stop to look, stop to test them on our eyes, ears and hands, we may wonder what they mean, and like Larkin and Betjeman try to impose on them a meaning of our own.
When did I first enter St Mary’s? In truth, I do not know. In relating to churches, there is a mix of Thomas/Betjeman/Larkin in me. A fascination with medieval architecture mixes with the lure of words and music; and there is also the emotional tug of a childhood spent in the embrace of another Highbury church. So St Mary’s spire, visible from the A 5 as it rounds the Wrekin ten miles east of Shrewsbury (a descent I have made a thousand times) prods my sight and consciousness like a summoning or rebuking finger. In The Presence, Philip Gross’ description of a Hepworth sculpture resonates with this view:
A one. A standing
on its own plinth. Slim
slicked naked singularity.
What’s with it? All
the presence it contains,
silt swirling to the surface,
stops there, while light
taps, taps from the outside
and is not admitted.
On days when I walk my son to school, St Mary’s spire, along with that of nearby St Alkmund’s, dominates the town. Closer still, there is the graveyard I cut across from the post office to a coffee shop. These views, paths and shadows are glimpses of something larger: they float loose like words from written monuments. ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, ‘To be or not to be,’ chant children, cleverly, heedless of Wordsworth and Hamlet. We have distant views of works which lie around us, and which give some sense of significance. So when we finally enter, when we pick up a book, we are not so much at the start of a reading as we suppose.
On a December day, just before Christmas, I enter St Mary’s through the west door, beside the Monument remembering Cadman, and I am ‘in media res’ (Kermode, 1967 p. 7). I am literally ‘in the middest’ of Christmas shopping, and, like RS Thomas in his poem In Church, ‘I have stopped to listen’. The woman who greets me wants to create a beginning for me, unaware that she is interrupting, that I have the uneasy status of tourist in my own town, have no satisfactory explanation for being here. I envy Philip Larkin his empty church. Noble volunteers keep St Mary’s open, and prior to Christmas, are running a card shop in a side chapel. To achieve something like solitude, I feign a look of wistful piety, and head for a pew. Sitting down, closing my eyes for effect, I am disappointed to hear the tinging of cash registers which irritate me as much as the band on the High Street singing ‘Put the Christ back into Christmas’ and the overabundance of goods in the shops which I’ve just escaped.
Having entered St Mary’s and dodged the welcoming committee, I realise that I do have an expectation, and that is that I will find some sort of refuge here. The association between church buildings and physical sanctuary is deeply rooted in English culture. For a thousand years, from King Ethelbert’s time, churches provided protection from arrest for felons who sheltered within, or hung on to sanctuary crosses placed around churches like St Mary’s which were licensed by the crown. By the time Cadman fell, this right had long gone, repealed by James I, the same king who bolstered the Church of England’s confidence with his commissioning of the Authorized translation of the Bible – a new sanctuary for English and the English in the word of God. So to be ‘arrested’, even by well-meaning, and to be exposed to the sounds of commerce in this place, seems like an ancient violation.
Whilst I have no immediate sense of sanctuary, there is something else. The noisy irritations cannot close out the familiar change in scale and light. This experience of space, created not simply for function but for spiritual expression, impresses me. Even on this winter’s day, when it is warmer inside than out, a sense of coolness unique to large spaces trapped in stone begins to soothe me. It is the feel of ‘air recomposing itself / For vigil’ as RS Thomas wrote in his poem In Chuch. ‘It has waited like this / Since the stones grouped themselves about it.’ To touch the pale sandstone of a central pillar, part of the thirteenth century work which added aisles to flank the nave, is to imagine the touch of others, the wear on some of the lower stones perhaps caused by fingering devotion, or the heavy blows of a long sermon.
Scale fascinates, particularly when it is played with. Don Patterson in his humorous poem, Prologue, claims ‘A poem is a little church, remember ...’ He reminds us to listen to poetry as if we are in church ‘so please, no flash, no necking in the pew, / or snorting just to let your neighbour know / you get the clever stuff …’ Medieval architects tested the limits of scale to amaze us and to reduce us to reverence for God. Could Patterson’s ‘little church’, one the size of a poem, really make us sit up straight, fall silent and fold our hands? Smaller, uglier buildings require something other than a ‘serious shell’ of magnificence to stir us, needing the invisible architecture of words and music. In The Chapel, RS Thomas imagines that in a Welsh chapel, ‘without the appeal / to the tourist to stop his car / and visit it’ there can also be reverence:
… once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them ..
.. and (they) sang their amens
So too, in poetry, for Patterson, ‘this holy place of heightened speech.’
The story of St Mary’s is one of grand scale, of extension and elevation, of over-reaching what has gone before. In every age up until the nineteenth century, St Mary’s has been retranslated, like versions of Beowulf or Aesop’s Fables, to suit contemporary ambitions and understanding. The stonework tells us this: the lower sections of the walls are a hotchpotch of red sandstone reclaimed from the knocking out of the Norman walls when the north and south aisles were added. Outside, the lower part of the tower is the same red sandstone, assembled about 1170, whereas above is paler sandstone, indicating where the tower was partially taken down and rebuilt with a spire in the second half of the fifteenth century. This desire to build into space and to new heights expresses a mixture of spiritual and earthly pride like that personified by William Golding’s Dean Jocelin in The Spire. That novel ends with the spire incomplete and precarious, built against the advice of the master mason, Jocelin’s earthy rival. St Mary’s spire has fallen and been rebuilt three times: twice in the sixteenth century, and again in 1894 when a storm brought down the top thirty feet. Then, it took with it the fifteenth century wooden ceiling, which the Victorians recovered, taking the chance to add neo-Gothic details of their own.
These retranslations and recoveries present us with an eclectic and quirky whole. Some additions make sense, others add to a sense of the church having an organic life-force: she sprouts chapels, buttresses and bell towers, wears holes into stonework causing a superfluity of doorways and windows. From my pew, the timeline from the buried Saxon beginnings to the church’s closure in 1987 is invisible. There is a blurring of styles: the rounded Norman and pointed Early Gothic arches of the nave and crossing were built side by side and simultaneously, not in separate ages with distinct transitions as historians imply. The various named architectural styles: Perpendicular, early English Gothic, Neo-Gothic, Tudor, Norman, exist here all at once and in no particular order. In a reading of The Wasteland, all the works that preceded it, Ecclesiastes, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress (I could go on …) exist within it, are held together in the space that the poem occupies.
As well as offering a change in scale, St Mary’s changes light. There is less light, or light of a different kind. It is filtered through highly prized stained glass whose blues, golds, reds and greens are an impossible wealth of preserved fragility. The panes of the fourteenth century Jesse window in the East end tell the story of the ascent of Jesus from Jesse, who reclines at the window’s base, up through his son David and all the ranks of their male progeny. This family tree has been dismantled and reassembled at least three times. Made originally for Greyfriars which lay further east, towards the town’s Abbey, it was moved to Old St Chad’s at the Dissolution and moved again, this time to St Mary’s when Old St Chad’s collapsed in July 1788. In all these reassemblings there have been changes and additions. When moved to St Mary’s, the window needed additional panes to fill a larger frame, and cutting of panes to fit the smaller spaces. The composition is faultless at a distance, and the whole appears to be always and forever intended as it is now. Editing and restoration like this can cause controversy – what is original, and who is the true author? But all work is the result of collaboration – even single-authored works rely on the foundations and frames of previous and contemporaneous work. The work of Raymond Carver has been viewed almost as fraudulent by some, because of significant editorial input, but who can truly say that a work is ‘all my own’? In The Death of the Author, Barthes (1984) claims that a text is ‘a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.’ At the very least, art must be read, and in that moment of reading, it becomes a work of collaboration with the reader. According to TS Eliot (Bennett & Royle, 2009, p. 6) ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.’
The window’s pixilated story of Jesus’ descent from Jesse has been given a very particular edit. It is a story of men, told by men, illustrated by men. Although this building is dedicated to a woman, Mary and her legendary mother Anne are the only women shown in this vast scene. All the other women implicated in the ancestry of Christ, including Bathsheba the adulteress and Rahab the prostitute, are excluded. This is a version for important men and virgins, contrived, as these things so often are, as a narrative of success and male destiny and, with no hint of irony in the context of a virgin birth. Something of this distortion is paralleled by Jean Sprackland in Holy:
It is written in the book of saints that Our Lady
appeared to me in a waterfall near Combret
and that through me she fed the hungry of that town.
No one however speaks of the child I bore
by the priest at Millau where I continued my work.
I wish you to know how first I guided his hands.
I was a torrent he rode like a raft, I surged
beneath him and leapt at last, speechless,
like a writhing fish. This too should be recorded
but my passions are of course eclipsed
by the table I kept for the poor: meat and bread …
‘This too should be recorded’. In a sense it is: the originators’ version is not as static as they supposed. Once rendered in glass it was freed from their authorship. The glass liquefies and solidifies, its colours shifting and changing in intensity and coherence from dawn to dusk, and from season to season. To contemporary eyes, the long-haired, stockinged representations of men might well be women. ‘Light is not the thing you see, but the means by which you see it … the means to meaning,’ writes Philip Cowell (2010). Sometimes, write RS Thomas ‘Shadows advance / From their corners to take possession / Of the places the light held / for an hour.’ As darkness falls, I see the clear certainty of the window’s story fail. It darkens, loses its narrative, vanishes the power of man, and becomes a blank, sightless archway.
Parts of the church are lit artificially, and from my pew I can look up to the highlighted fifteenth century ceiling in the nave. In contrast, the aisle ceilings are in shadow. Without needing to be told, I know that the nave ceiling is considered more important by critics of medieval craft. In this way, by showing us one thing and not another, we are urged into a particular way of seeing. It takes courage to look into the shadows, to step outside the mainstream. In ‘Gods’, Anne Sexton goes on a wildly ironic search:
Mrs Sexton went out looking for the gods.
She began looking in the sky – …
She made a pilgrimage to the great poet
and he belched in her face …
She prayed in all the churches of the world
and learned a great deal about culture …
Then she journeyed back to her own house
and the gods of the world were shut in the lavatory.
For Sexton, the gods were not found where she’d been told they’d be, but in the least sacred of places. When we illuminate what we think is important, we see what enables us to discuss accepted ideas of greatness and beauty with others, but we may sacrifice what pleases us and speaks to us more directly. And sometimes, after all, it is when we close our eyes that we see most clearly. Overwhelmed, for a moment, by all the things I’m meant to see, all the symbolism carved into this church, I shut my eyes.
‘Some days’, says Carol Ann Duffy in Prayer, ‘although we cannot pray, a prayer / utters itself’. In this place, whether I pray or not, I am compelled to a physical act of reverence. This cruciform church orientates me east. I am facing each day’s new dawn and the eternal city of Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s death. Whether or not I am not uplifted, this place holds me in time and place. I notice now that the tills have stopped ringing, the conversations and most of the visitors have left. If this were a film, music would begin to play, or the angel on top of the Christmas tree in front of the pulpit would lift his head, stretch a wing. There is nothing, external, however, to tell me that Es ist Zeit. For Paul Celan in Corona, there is no obvious sense of longed-for fulfillment:
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time
There is no perfect ending, no precise moment when I am meant to go; but thinking of all the Christmas preparations yet to be made, I rise to leave. I know enough to drop a donation in the collection box on my way out (not an Irish sixpence). Outside, the world is white with snow and the lovely Christmas lights have come on. The band has packed up and the number of shoppers has dwindled. ‘For once it is a white Christmas / so white that the roads are impassable,’ Simon Armitage writes in White Christmas of a similar scene, and like him, I recognise the mystery of this incarnation of the perfect Christmas card. Prayer, sacredness, sanctuary are everywhere and nowhere. They are as much here, outside St Mary’s, as they were inside.
Heading homewards, I pass the war memorial in the grounds - Wilfred Owen grew up in Shrewsbury, also walked these streets. In a letter dated May 2nd 1917, he wrote home saying that he had found Christ in No Man’s Land, in the place between human territories and claims. And I am tempted to think for a moment that St Mary’s claim is indeed redundant.
But I know this isn’t so. Later on in Prayer, Duffy continues:
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
As a church declared redundant, St Mary’s stands outside of the regular routine of worship, of the patterns she helped to create and weave into me. And it is outside of this pattern of day and night, light and dark, of being inside or out, that I can most readily glimpse, as Geoffrey Hill expresses in Of Coming into Being and Passing Away, ‘visions of truth or dreams / as they arise – / to terms of grace / where grace has surprised us’ (in the sound of a train, in the glance of filtered light, in the lofty arches of a stand of snow-fringed trees, and most, most, most of all, in poetry: the poetry of Thomas, Larkin, Hill, Eliot, Patterson, Sprackland, Sexton, Duffy, Celan...)
Barthes, R. (1984) Image, Music, Text (Essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath), Fontana
Bennett, A. & Royle, N. (2009) Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 4th ed., Harlow: Pearson
Cowell, P. (2010) “On Not Looking Up”, Poetry Review, Volume 100:4, Winter 2010
Kermode, F. (1967) The Sense of an Ending, Oxford: OUP
Paterson, D. (2010) “The Domain of the Poem”, Poetry Review, Volume 100:4, Winter 2010
Wilfred Owen letter cited in the OUP edition of his poems – introduction by C Day Lewis, 1967 edition.
For those who’d like me to tie things up a bit more neatly, here’s an ending to match Cadman’s:
Now see St Mary’s spire pierce starry skies,
The Jesse window lighted from inside.
So does the mind enlighten every man,
If he reads poetry that rhymes and scans.