Not often does history present itself to you as a wall of personalities. Personalities long gone, perhaps long forgotten. But it does in the environs of St Michael’s church in Aberystwyth. As the evangelists within the nave sing and exalt, I am burning with enthusiasm outside: looking at a sloping wall of headstones.
One encounters history in some of the least likely places in Aberystwyth. One of my favourite locations to run into the past is in the wall-papered interior of the corridors running alongside the family arcade in the Aberystwyth pier. The corridor, padded with thick faded carpet and smelling distinctly of beer, with those heavy fire doors that you find in so many modern buildings, presents the perfect context to confront Victorian Aberystwyth. The walls here are like a visual time machine, conjuring up the spirits of Edwardian ladies and gentlemen on their seaside holidays and the things that entertained them: brass bands, nomadic circus performers, ‘penny ices’. But perhaps one of the most exciting things about these windows into the past, is how little Aberystwyth has changed. There can be few other beach resort towns in the UK that have lost so little (at least speaking of the beach front). I recognise exactly where the photographer is standing, and the curving plane of the promenade he captures. It is almost uncanny. The feeling is not one of disconnect but of emphatically connecting.
Let’s return to St Michaels. I am being sensitive, I am being macabre; I am examining headstones. More often than not I do this for selfish reasons: I search for names, names for characters that I can put into books or short stories — occasionally I do so in order to read what words, what ten or so words (of course on an engraved headstone every word has a price) the bereaved have used to frame the idea of their loved ones. The words can be powerful, magisterial, cliché, or they can be shatteringly accurate. (I think of those wonderful lines penned by Shakespeare and chosen by the poet-dramatist Shelley to adorn his grave: ‘Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange’.) But I’m not here as a poet or writer, I am here as a historian. The reason the headstones here arrest my attention is their simplicity. They attest in the plainest possible manner to the identities of the corpses they enshrine, name, date of death and occupation. One reads: ‘Here lieth the body of MARY EVANS wife of Evan Evans Blockmaker of this Town’; another, ‘Here lieth the body of Richard the son of Richard Davies, Rope maker of this town…’. Rope makers, blockmakers, sailors, navvies, surgeons, vets, these were the most common occupations in Victorian Aberystwyth. This was the common currency of life here. Of course there are many references to the sea and sea-faring, tombs erected to honour deceased pilots and helmsmen. I cannot help but notice how the vertical arrangement of the slate headstones, set into the concrete wall, creates a kind of hierarchy, between the headstones. The more elaborate and important citizens with larger more expensive headstones at the top, the humbler, less ornamented gravestones at the bottom. But somehow it is the simpler gravestones that I prefer to look at and that give me an insight into the sort of place Aberystwyth was in the past. Before I leave the environs of the church altogether, I go home back the way of my favourite headstone, perhaps of all time, the one that got me started on this trail of epitaphs. It is in a prominent position, displayed beside the south-facing arched entrance to the church. An unforgettable engraving upon it reads:
‘STOP, TRAVELLER, STOP. AND READ
This Stone was Erected by those who fully Appreciated the integrity and fidelity, of DAVID LEWIS alias the old Commodore who departed this life on the 16th day of Feb 1850. Aged 66 Years.
He nobly fought on board the Conqueror under ‘NELSON’ AT THE BATTLE OF Trafalgar and for the last 15 years perform’d Zealously the duties of deputy Harbour Master at this Fort.
Here lies David Lewis, what then, David – when his Master calls will rise again.’
This is a brilliant example of what the best sort of epitaph writing can achieve; its power to distil history, significance, but also, crucially, narrative. It is the same power that Wordsworth alludes to in his rather peculiar series of ‘Essays upon Epitaphs’ which forges connections between the function of language, poetry and headstones (the language of the dead). According to Wordsworth the epitaph is the first kind of writing and therefore possesses a primeval, hieratic power — a heredity that is then absorbed into poetry and literature. This is poetry’s forgotten function or origin: a commemoration, a reincarnation.