I spent the weekend in Derbyshire, the English county at the geographical heart of England. It could also lay claim to being at the literary centre, having inspired such novelists as Jane Austen, George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. It’s hard to think of a place which better fits the description ‘green and pleasant land’. Even the clouds really seem to ‘unfold’ just as they do in Blake’s hymn ‘Jerusalem’. While I was there I visited the village of Tissington, a quaint, quintessentially English village. Every year the villagers ‘dress’ the wells with flowers, a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s done to celebrate the running of clean water at a time when the surrounding countryside was struck by plague, and the Biblical scenes give thanks to God (who is obviously from Tissington) for this act of mercy.
Earlier this year the village joined the rest of the country and gave thanks for something else; namely, Victory in Europe. A number of the wells were dressed in red, white and blue and declared such things as ‘A Nation Rejoices’. But the idea of rejoicing in times of remembrance has always seemed strange to me. Especially when we reflect on the things this
country lost in the wars of the 20th century. It’s for this reason that the phrase ‘Lest We Forget’ has always seemed, to me, so powerful. It comes from a deep and universal human urge: the urge to remember and commemorate sacrifice.
Perhaps that is why we do not use the word ‘celebration’ when we mark the end of the First World War. Remembrance Sunday is sombre, with none of the joy that we associate with the end of the Second World War and which we saw in the VE Day celebrations. The 11th November is a day for remembering the Unknown Soldier. It fulfils an almost religious function even in our irreligious society. Collectively we mourn a collective loss – even if to a cynic like myself it often seems that we have forgotten the very things that once made our country such a peaceful place.
By coincidence I had just finished reading a biography of Patrick Shaw-Stewart when I went to Tissington to look at the wells. He died in 1917, leaving one poem to posterity, as well as a host of letters. The poem he wrote, ‘Achilles in the Trench’, was written during his time in Gallipoli and is as much a product of The Illiad and his classical education as of the Great War. It’s a beautiful poem, made more beautiful, poignant and heartbreaking by the life and death of the poet. After serving in Gallipoli he was able to have himself posted to France, where he died. Perhaps most tragic are the letters he wrote home, and the ones he received. Of the latter a great many bring news of the deaths of his friends. By 1916 all his closest friends from school and Oxford had. The ‘Corrupt Coterie’ of which he was a leading figure had been killed off one by one.
It seems only natural that we should be sombre when reflecting on the deaths of men like Patrick Shaw-Stewart. For they died defending their country in a war that would destroy their country as they knew it. When we mark the minute’s silence on Armistice Day we mark the passing of a world to which we cannot return. The ‘sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day’ described by Rupert Brooke (a friend of Shaw-Stewart) are no more and the England that he knew is gone.
So despite appearing to have been unchanged for hundreds of years, the village of Tissington and its dressing of the wells tells us something very important about the way that England has been transformed. The effect that that truly Great War had on this country. One feels it’s only right to feel a kind of profound sadness, not just for those who died, but for the death of the country they had died for.
By a curious twist of fate, Shaw-Stewart’s poem was found scribbled inside a copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, which contains the following lines, and which express these feelings better than I ever could:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows,
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
Those happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.