With the clock going back, and All Souls’ looming, I always sense a moody suspension of time. An hour is lost, in order to gain an hour; the dead yet living briefly retake their vacated seats in the ancient church. It is unutterably sad, say what you will. Neither spooky nor made endurable by tomfoolery, but just sad. The commemoration of All Souls’ came from Cluny*, as did so many extraordinary things.
I like to imagine that St Odilo, who invented it, noted that certain faces, often young, failed to appear in that grand liturgy each autumn, and that he became their remembrancer. As, indeed, we do, as we hear a long list of the recent dead. The fearful ‘Dies Irae’ was sung (though not now), and the living would quake. Early in the morning, I watch wild formations of seagulls fly low across the new ploughing, and the sky gradually lightening from fading black to gold.
On Tuesday, we went to see the Siegfried Sassoon exhibition at Cambridge University Library. It rained, and leaves fell all the way. Wet, ebony lanes; soaked joggers. I was not prepared for the poet’s minuscule hand as I pored over the showcases. The writing became smaller and smaller as the years progressed, and the later pages seemed have been written with a mapping pen. I never get over seeing the first draft of a famous poem. Tiny beyond expectation, here is ‘Everyone sang’.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of
The repetition of visionary matters. I bump my nose from case to case in the preservative gloom as I try to make out Sassoon’s hand. His Great War is reflected on the TV screen as the newsmen don their poppies. I recall a visit he made to Thomas Hardy.
‘He showed me a “new old” poem, “On Stinsford Hill at Midnight”, and told me how he saw a girl singing alone one night as he returned home (a Salvationist girl who died soon after). She had a tambourine (he called it “a timbrel” in the poem). The poem leaves the reader to decide whether it was a live woman or a ghost.’
I once sat in the room where Sassoon talked to Hardy. I was helping to edit the New Wessex edition of Hardy’s works. I can’t remember if it was late in the year, but I can never forget the immense haunting of Max Gate since then – the clock-sounding rooms, the dull garden, the enchanted melancholy, the ‘presence’. Hardy, wrote Sassoon in his almost invisible hand, ‘never sits in the comfortable chair or on the sofa, but perches himself on a straight-backed chair, and leans his head lightly on his hand, in an easy attitude, dignified and self-possessed and calm’.
And so to evensong in Selwyn College Chapel in a kind of dream. Young souls – like the Lord himself.
From an article found in TS, PD
* Odilo of Cluny (France, Burgundy region) instituted All Souls’ Day—a day to pray for the souls of deceased family members—ordinary men and women who had lived good lives and were waiting in purgatory until they were worthy to enter heaven.
Featured Image: All Souls Day (1888) Jakub Schikander (1855-1924) WikiCommons, PD