Were I to find myself in Cornwall today I would walk a mile or so from the town where I was born until I reached the church of St Breoke. There I would climb the grassy path to the top of the cemetery and sit for a time on a weathered bench. The trees in the valley below would, I imagine, be autumn bare, but high in their branches the old rooks’ nests would remain. The air would be cold, but clean and light. At some point I would start speaking aloud to the dead, and another visitor to the place would look up and think me mad. ‘But do you not hear those bells,’ I would say. ‘That is the voice of my father. I am merely paying him the courtesy of replying.’ At this point the other visitor would gather his things and move away, and I would remember a Cornish poet and offer six more words to the wind: For you have never been away.
This is what I would do were I in Cornwall today. As I am not there, but sitting at home in Catalonia, I will turn instead to Charles Causley and his song for the departed. I will take his Collected Poems 1951-2000 off the shelf, and I will open the book to page 265. First I will read On All Souls’ Day in silence, and then again aloud. Finally, I will listen to the poem set to music by the poet’s distant descendant, the Devonian folk singer, Jim Causley.
If you have time for only one of these three things, then I recommend you read the words below while listening to Jim Causley sing them. His arrangement is haunting and beautiful, and his baritone voice brings a weight to the words that I had not previously discovered.
Savour these words, this song, and reflect in peace on those who have been loved and lost, but who have never been away.
On All Souls’ Day
Last night they lit your glass with wine
And brought for you the sweet soul-cake,
And blessed the room with candle-shine
For the grave journey you would make.
They told me not to stir between
The midnight strokes of one and two,
And I should see you come again
To view the scene that once you knew.
‘Good night,’ they said, and journeyed on.
I turned the key, and – turning – smiled,
And in the quiet house alone
I slept serenely as a child.
Innocent was that sleep, and free,
And when the first of morning shone
I had no need to gaze and see
If crumb, or bead of wine, had gone.
My heart was easy as this bloom
Of waters rising by the bay.
I did not watch where you might come,
For you had never been away.
For you have never been away.