Suffolk churches 5: Brettenham (May 2017)

I sometimes have the tendency to think that poetry and art – sometimes even music, although I grew up immersed in it – do not speak to me, that I do not have the ability to appreciate them. My father used to sigh deeply, in half-comic despair at having a philistine daughter, when he would quote poetry to me and I could not tell him who wrote it – nor feel it in the way he did. But then I happen across a work that does speak to me, and I realise I am wrong. Perhaps he would not despair of me after all. And in fact, of all art forms, poetry may be the one I would choose first to express my emotional response to the natural world.

The Trees by Philip Larkin is one such poem. I happened across it in the Brettenham village newsletter, copies of which had been left next to the visitors’ book in Brettenham church. Reading later that Larkin himself was critical of it saddened me, but did not change my response. The poem put into words something I often feel in spring, despite my excitement at its arrival, and despite its sense of hope and new beginnings. It was particularly poignant for me today, thinking as I was of Jeremy, a friend not long buried in this churchyard, and his family. The grief for me is now specific – for the rest of my life, spring will carry strong associations of loss, and the anticipation of it – as well as general:Brettenham interior like life, spring cannot be grasped or made to stand still. In no time at all the luminous, translucent greens of every conceivable shade pass into the sturdy, more monotone deep green of summer.

The church was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the poem, and my thoughts and emotions: set in a pretty churchyard enclosed by a low brick wall, with a large horse chestnut and several lime trees in one corner dripping with greenness. Inside was beautiful and reassuring simplicity. There was only a scattering of stained glass, letting in plenty of light through the remaining windows. Especially the huge west window I was facing as I played, and through which I could see tall trees in their spring dresses dancing in the wind.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh’1.

Brettenham church

1. Larkin, P. (1993), ‘The Trees’ in Collected Poems. Faber & Faber Ltd, London.


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