It’s a tricky one. What’s the best known poem in the English language? And how do we prove it? Does it depend on what you were taught at school, or something else? And are we talking about an entire poem, or the most famous line or couplet? (Can you tell someone’s age by whether they can recite an entire poem unprompted?) Best known does not equate to best loved, just to complicate matters further. As it happens, the authors of several contenders have lived in the Chilterns and Thames Valley region: John Milton (Paradise Lost); TS Eliot (The Wasteland); Percy Shelley (Ozymandias); Rupert Brooke (The Soldier); Christina Rossetti (Remember). None of these works has such a striking physical memorial as you’ll find a minute or two away from St Giles, the parish church of Stoke Poges.
The church itself is well worth a look, a remarkable amalgam of Saxon, Norman, early Gothic and Tudor. Red brick, flint and oak all combine to great effect, while there are several splendid hatchments (diamond-shaped tablets) including one honouring the Penn family. The Hastings Chapel contains a mystery; a mural monument with cherubs’ heads above and skulls below, but no inscription.
Most visitors, though, don’t linger inside but make for the east window of the Hastings Chapel outside, where Dorothy Gray and her sister Mary Antrobus are buried… along with Dorothy’s son Thomas, though lack of space means his name appears not on the tomb but on a tablet on the wall. Thomas’s true memorial appeared many years later; about 100 yards outside the churchyard, a stone sarcophagus raised on a square pedestal, on whose sides some verses from Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard appear. The monument was bought by local residents and presented to the National Trust in 1921 with ten acres of the neighbouring field bought by public subscription to preserve the surroundings.
What you think of the poem itself might depend on which school you went to, and hence whether you learned it then and remember it now. Close by the church’s south-west door sits the old yew tree under which, so the legend goes, Gray wrote the Elegy. Is this true? It scarcely matters. As a character says in The Man who shot Liberty Valance (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Is the Elegy, as the church’s own booklet suggests, “perhaps the best known poem in the English language”? Again, it probably isn’t important. What matter in the end are the words, and the English vision they conjure up:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me…