Let us hope for good plots of sod for slumbering,
nestled in among green trees and vines
and watched over by hawk-eyed angels;
hope for a bit of morning sun, a piece
of the sunset, a peace of the heart.
Let us hope for good company, too,
souls well-versed in the art
of conversation, good bedfellows
who’ll keep their ashes to themselves
as we perch on our stones, feet dangling,
to talk until dawn and then back to our shelves
to wait for flowers.
You must understand –
we shunned the “little death” for hope,
not fear–to save them all for a longer night
lying in among the grasses, to grope
in mind (if not in flesh) between the marbles,
to shed our mantles and run naked
among obelisks and pyramids.
No, we don’t envy the living and their sordid
breathing. See? It is they who are jealous,
tipping cups in our sepulchers at night.
When I was at Queen Mary College-University of London, I made the obligatory pilgrimage to Highgate Cemetery to see Karl Marx’s grave. With its concrete slabs, monstrous bust, and vases of red flowers, it was a brutal sight, more in line with Stalin’s Soviet Union than the disreputable crank who spent his days at the British Library reading room and his nights at the Red Lion. I was an anarcho-syndicalist Trotskyite at the time, so I was greatly disappointed.
But across the path from the new section of the cemetery where Marx lies was the old cemetery, which had been allowed to fall into the most wonderfully Romantic decay. Vines covered the ornate Victorian statuary, trees stretched over the twisting paths and reached down with shadowy limbs, and the whole place seemed to sigh and swoon a musty memento mori. And since I’m far more a Romantic than a Trotskyite, I fell in love immediately.
This poem is my little jab at the Victorian obsession with death and apparent fear of sex, imagined through the filter of Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place. The obelisks and pyramids are common funerary statues, as are the hawk-eyed angels; the cast-off mantles refer to another common monument, an empty chair with a robe cast carelessly over one arm, symbolic of casting off the earthly form.
The last lines, and the dedication to General (Loftus William) Otway, is a reference to a story my guide at Highgate told. He was a charming and garrelous Australian, so this probably falls into the category of “not true, but deserves to be.”
The story was that after Otway was interred in 1854, his family would frequently come to London to pay their respects. Since they lived far away (I think he said Surrey), they would have their supper in Otway’s tomb before heading home. A young Irishman strolling in the cemetery one evening passed Otway’s tomb, and heard the clinking of glasses and laughing conversation, and hurried home to write Dracula.
It’s true that Highgate Cemetery is associated with Dracula, though there’s some debate as to whether Lucy was buried there or at Hendon; and Stoker knew this neighborhood, and probably wandered through Highgate (cemeteries were designed as healthful parks to replace the miasmic old bone yards); and I suppose General Otway’s tomb would be a nice enough place for a picnic. So I’ll stand by the story so long as nothing much is at stake. (“Stake”–get it? Vampires, tombs, stake through the … never mind.)