by Thomas Hardy
The new-vamped Abbey shaped apace
In the fourteenth century of grace;
(The church which, at an after date,
Acquired cathedral rank and state.)
Panel and circumscribing wall
Of latest feature, trim and tall,
Rose roundabout the Norman core
In prouder pose than theretofore,
Encasing magically the old
With parpend ashlars manifold.
The trowels rang out, and tracery
Appeared where blanks had used to be.
Men toiled for pleasure more than pay,
And all went smoothly day by day,
Till, in due course, the transept part
Engrossed the master-mason's art.
- Home-coming thence he tossed and turned
Throughout the night till the new sun burned.
'What fearful visions have inspired
These gaingivings?' his wife inquired;
'As if your tools were in your hand
You have hammered, fitted, muttered, planned;
'You have thumped as you were working hard:
I might have found me bruised and scarred.
'What then's amiss. What eating care
Looms nigh, whereof I am unaware?'
He answered not, but churchward went,
Viewing his draughts with discontent;
And fumbled there the livelong day
Till, hollow-eyed, he came away.
-'Twas said, 'The master-masons ill!'
And all the abbey works stood still.
Quoth Abbot Wygmore: 'Why, O why
Distress yourself? You'll surely die!'
The mason answered, trouble-torn,
'This long-vogued style is quite outworn!
'The upper archmould nohow serves
To meet the lower tracery curves:
'The ogees bend too far away
To give the flexures interplay.
'This it is causes my distress….
So it will ever be unless
'New forms be found to supersede
The circle when occasions need.
'To carry it out I have tried and toiled,
And now perforce must own me foiled!
'Jeerers will say: "Here was a man
Who could not end what he began!"'
- So passed that day, the next, the next;
The abbot scanned the task, perplexed;
The townsmen mustered all their wit
To fathom how to compass it,
But no raw artistries availed
Where practice in the craft had failed….
- One night he tossed, all open-eyed,
And early left his helpmeet's side.
Scattering the rushes of the floor
He wandered from the chamber door
And sought the sizing pile, whereon
Struck dimly a cadaverous dawn
Through freezing rain, that drenched the board
Of diagram-lines he last had scored -
Chalked phantasies in vain begot
To knife the architectural knot -
In front of which he dully stood,
Regarding them in hopeless mood.
He closelier looked; then looked again:
The chalk-scratched draught-board faced the rain,
Whose icicled drops deformed the lines
Innumerous of his lame designs,
So that they streamed in small white threads
From the upper segments to the heads
Of arcs below, uniting them
Each by a stalactitic stem.
- At once, with eyes that struck out sparks,
He adds accessory cusping-marks,
Then laughs aloud. The thing was done
So long assayed from sun to sun….
- Now in his joy he grew aware
Of one behind him standing there,
And, turning. saw the abbot, who
The weathers whim was watching too.
Onward to Prime the abbot went,
Tacit upon the incident.
- Men now discerned as days revolved
The ogive riddle had been solved;
Templates were cut, fresh lines were chalked
Where lines had been defaced and balked,
And the work swelled and mounted higher
Achievement distancing desire;
Here jambs with transom's fixed between,
Where never the like before had been -
There little mullions thinly sawn
Where meeting circles once were drawn.
'We knew,' men said, 'the thing would go
After his craft-wit got aglow,
'And, once fulfilled what he has designed,
We'll honour him and his great mind!'
Matters stood thus poised awhile,
And all surroundings shed a smile,
Master-mason on an eve
Homed to his wife and seemed to grieve…
- 'The abbot spoke to me to-day:
He hangs about the works alway.
'He knows the source as well as I
Of the new style men magnify.
'He said: "You pride yourself too much
On your creation. Is it such?
'"Surely the hand of God it is
That conjured so, and only His! -
'"Disclosing by the frost and rain
Forms your invention chased in vain;
'"Hence the devices deemed so great
You copied, and did not create."
'I feel the abbot's words are just,
And that all thanks renounce I must.
'Can a man welcome praise and pelf
For hatching art that hatched itself?…
'So, I shall own the deft design
Is Heaven's outshaping, and not mine.'
'What!' said she. 'Praise your works ensure
To throw away, and quite obscure
'Your beaming and beneficent star?
Better you leave things as they are!
'Why, think awhile. Had not your zest
In your loved craft curtailed your rest -
'Had you not gone there ere the day
The sun had melted all away!'
- But, though his good wife argued so,
The mason let the people know
That not unaided sprang the thought
Whereby the glorious fane was wrought,
But that by frost when dawn was dim
The method was disclosed to him.
'Yet,' said the townspeople thereat,
''Tis your own doing, even with that!'
But he - chafed, childlike, in extremes -
The temperament of men of dreams -
Aloofly scrupled to admit
That he did aught but borrow it,
And diffidently made request
That with the abbot all should rest.
- As none could doubt the abbots word,
Or question what the church averred,
The mason was at length believed
Of no more count than he conceived,
And soon began to lose the fame
That late had gathered round his name….
- Time passed, and like a living thing
The pile went on embodying,
And workmen died, and young ones grew,
And the old mason sank from view
And Abbots Wygmore and Staunton went
And Horton sped the embellishment.
But not till years had far progressed
Chanced it that, one day, much impressed,
Standing within the well-graced aisle,
He asked who first conceived the style;
And some decrepit sage detailed
How, when invention nought availed,
The cloud-cast waters in their whim
Came down, and gave the hint to him
Who struck each arc, and made each mould;
And how the abbot would not hold
As sole begetter him who applied
Forms the Almighty sent as guide;
And how the master lost renown,
And wore in death no artists crown.
- Then Horton, who in inner thought
Had more perceptions than he taught,
Replied: 'Nay; art can but transmute;
Invention is not absolute;
'Things fail to spring from nought at call,
And art-beginnings most of all.
'He did but what all artists do,
Wait upon Nature for his cue.'
- 'Had you been here to tell them so,
Lord Abbot, sixty years ago,
'The mason, now long underground,
Doubtless a different fate had found.
'He passed into oblivion dim,
And none knew what became of him!
'His name? 'Twas of some common kind
And now has faded out of mind.'
The abbot: 'It shall not be hid!
I'll trace it.'… But he never did.
- When longer yet dank death had wormed
The brain wherein the style had germed
From Gloucester church it flew afar -
The style called Perpendicular. -
To Winton and to Westminster
It ranged, and grew still beautifuller:
From Solway Frith to Dover Strand
Its fascinations starred the land,
Not only on cathedral walls
But upon courts and castle halls,
Till every edifice in the isle
Was patterned to no other style,
And till, long having played its part,
The curtain fell on Gothic art.
- Well: when in Wessex on your rounds,
Take a brief step beyond its bounds,
And enter Gloucester: seek the quoin
Where choir and transept interjoin,
And, gazing at the forms there flung
Against the sky by one unsung -
The ogee arches transom-topped,
The tracery-stalks by spandrels stopped,
Petrified lacework - lightly lined
On ancient massiveness behind -
Muse that some minds so modest be
As to renounce fame's fairest fee,
(Like him who crystallized on this spot
His visionings, but lies forgot,
And many a mediaeval one
Whose symmetries salute the sun)
While others boom a baseless claim,
And upon nothing rear a name.
Last updated January 14, 2019