Photo by Candia Dixon-Stuart
I went to Winchester Cathedral last Sunday and observed the Close beginning its preparations for Christmas. This somewhat detracted from the Keatsian ambience of Autumnal peace. Still, there are many pragmatists who, in a similar manner to Elinor Dashwood’s dismissal of her sister Marianne’s Romantic sensibility regarding Ode to Autumn-type expressions, might utter:
It is not everyone who shares your passion for dead leaves!
Still, there is a sacred spot on Meribel lawn, in front of Pilgrims School, where the sculpture by Barbara Hepworth draws one in to another space. This artwork intrigued me for some time, but then I was affected by its presence and impact and this is what it said to me:
All stresses are counterbalanced: cancer,
the carnage of two marriages, cruel death
of her beloved son. Tried in the fire,
forged in the foundry of longsuffering,
three crosses stand against a cedar tree,
which may have sprouted from a mustard seed.
A faceless Christ haloes the deanery.
Meribel Close is stamped with Mondrian’s
grid-like shadows and our chequered lives.
Strong shoulders are the lintel of the Door.
Still people pass by on the other side,
embarrassed by their incomprehension,
smelted at the thought of a direct look.
Some gaze at alchemy’s transmutation.
The corm of caritas takes root in them.
Thinking about Winchester Cathedral Close, as I walked through it at the weekend and remembered the wonderful view I once had from the roof of the cathedral, over Pilgrims School to Winchester College. I visited a friend shortly afterwards and she had just had chemotherapy and was very ill with bone cancer. It was difficult to know if she would survive her treatment, but I made a kind of pact that we would do the roof tour together if she survived.
We didn’t sadly, but she bravely fought on for a further twenty years or so. I still think of her when I look up at the roof.
WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL ROOF TOUR
You have to haul yourself up by a rope:
the spiral staircase is so narrow and
the treads so shallow. I don’t think you’d cope
right now, but afterwards…
she nods, and drinks in my vivid outline
of the tour thirstily. When I’m quite through
this chemotherapy; my body’s mine
again, we must climb the tower and view
Wolvesey Palace, the Deanery, St. Cross..
Under the heavy wig her eyes burn bright.
I try not to think of her muscle loss,
or that she’s shrunk two inches of her height.
All I know is when birds return next spring,
I’ll stand on the cathedral roof alone,
or with her. Angels will be hovering,
lest we should dash our feet against a stone.
You cannot see their faces from the ground,
yet worshipful men carved exquisitely
where only God could note, their efforts crowned
in their own hearts.
We know implicitly
that all over in six months might mean that:
ambivalence a part of existence.
Magnificat; also requiescat:
twin themes in passionals of persistence.
Now she is confined in the dark stairwells
of pain where bluebottles accumulate,
but after her suffering has ceased, bells
will peal over pantiles, to celebrate
her courage, endurance, and will redound
to those whose vantage point’s on higher ground.