Paths of glory: the best known poem?

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…

 

Poetry… it’s the word on the street

Reality TV regularly shows us the results when competitions challenge people to be creative against the clock, whether that means implementing a business plan or baking a cake.  Along West Street at the top end of Marlow, heading towards Henley-on-Thames, is a reminder of a time, 200 years ago, when literature used to do something similar.

For this is where Percy and Mary Shelley once lived.  The house has since split into several flats but, in 1817, the Shelleys were completing or creating two significant literary works.  The story of how they stayed with Lord Byron at his villa on Lake Geneva the previous summer, reading each other ghost stories because of the inclement weather until Byron challenged each to write his or her own story, is well known.  By April-May 1817, Mary was completing work on what had started out as a short story, but became a novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.  Publication followed on 1 January 1818, albeit anonymously.

What is perhaps less well known is that Shelley’s poem Ozymandias may also have had a competitive origin.  According to Stephen Hebron, Curator of Special Projects at Oxford’s Bodleian Library,

“It was written sometime between December 1817 and January 1818, and was probably the result of a sonnet competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, who stayed with the Shelleys at their home in Marlow between 26 and 28 December. In such competitions two or more poets would each write a sonnet on an agreed subject against the clock.”

Shelley’s Ozymandias beat Smith’s version to publication by three weeks, being printed on 11 January 1818, and is much-quoted two centuries on.  Across the road, at 47 West Street, is a plaque to Thomas Love Peacock, novelist, poet and satirist – and close friend of Percy Shelley.  Peacock outlived Shelley by more than 40 years, but his writings now lie in an Ozymandias-like state of obscurity. Peacock’s old home is a showroom for a firm supplying natural stone and porcelain for the discerning home owner.

Remarkably, another plaque at number 31 reminds us that TS Eliot came to live in this street a century after the Shelleys, in a house which Aldous Huxley lent him.  By 1917, Eliot was beginning to come to the wider world’s attention for his poetry, including The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock which had been published two years earlier.  31 West Street now houses an excellent fine dining restaurant.

Given its length, perhaps it’s just as well that Eliot didn’t have to write Prufrock against the clock.