Brian P FitzGerald
St Helen and the Ghosts of Kilnsea
At my desk I sit and stare,
An etching, old, dusty and grey -
A church on a cliff and a tower that leans
And fishermen below caught in the spray.
They struggle to land their catch:
The sea is rough, with an east-wind blast.
The rays of the sun now pierce the clouds,
Like life itself - a moment soon passed.
Risking the dangers and tempests at sea
And scratching, a living close to the soil;
Fishermen and labourers, the sons of centuries,
Who lived and died a life of toil.
With unknown mariners lost at sea
Whose lifeless forms are washed ashore;
Unknown to all but God alone,
Their corpses cry to God no more.
With none but villagers to mourn their dying,
Among the dead of the village they rest
In graves secure by Helen's Tower,
They sleep a sleep no longer distressed.
No longer the feel of the sun on their backs
As they reap the corn and cut the hay;
No longer they savour the draft of beer
In the tavern at the end of the day.
No longer they hear the cuckoo in spring
Nor swallows that fly above their graves -
No Longer they hear the howl of the winter's wind
And the thud of the stormy waves.
The winter storms, they gather and rage,
The cliffs they slip, now slumping and tumbling
No man can save the graves from sliding
Into the sea - falling and crumbling.
Oh, St Helen, your tower now yields;
The church resists the waves no longer,
And graves are open to the sea's predation:
The dead who rest, now rest no longer.
The noisome bodies of those who died;
Clawed by storms from silent graves
Now litter the beach, and dragged to tombs
In icy waters below the waves.
Can those who rested for cent'ries past
Now find their peace below the storms?
Aware of seamen who struggle to ply
The stormy sea above their tombs?
And can they hear the tolling of bells
By ghostly ringers far out to sea?
For those who rest so deep below
At Colden, Newsham, and Hornsea Beck
Colden Parva, Monkwell, and Hyde
from Ringborough and Odd to Ravenspurn,
the bells they mourn the unknown dead…….
Who hears the bells for Skipsea Sands?
I sit on top of Skipsea cliff -
The sea is calm and waves are peaceful;
Seagulls wheel and swoop to shore
A gentle breeze now ruffles the water.
A hazy moon across the bay
On wavelets casts a spectral light,
That shimmers and dances a wraithlike ballet
As dusk now turns to sultry night
A mournful sound across the water
Softly tolls the knell at last
Of parishes long-since lost to sea,
And those who lived in centuries past
The bell now tolls in turn for Skipsea;
The road to Ulrome collapsed and barred.
The steps to beach exist no more;
The café for tea is shuttered and scarred.
I stand and stretch and wonder no more
Of people whose graves are under the sea,
Of villages on cliffs about to fall -
The bell may soon be tolling for me.
(East Yorkshire 24 July 2013)
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Poet's Notes about The Poem
This poem is set on the coast of East Yorkshire, a coast of soft Boulder Clay laid down durIng the last ice age. Over many centuries the sea has been eroding the land by several metres a year. Many villages are now lost to sea; churches' graveyards and their dead inhabitants. Many tales exist of ghostly tolling bells out to sea, bells that toll for those now at rest beneath the waves.
"…what I now saw, mutilated remains of shipwrecked mariners, necessarily from the state of decomposition in which they are usually found, interred in their clothes, made their resurrection from time to time in the course of the destruction of the cliff, — skeletons with silk handkerchiefs round their necks, and clad in partial remains of their garments." - George Head 1835 (Quoted in Jan Crowther 'HUMAN BONES AT KILNSEA AS COALS TO NEWCASTLE')
Google Search Kilnsea Church for more details.
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