Beauty of decay, stillness of remembrance, solitude amongst headstones, what is it people seek on graveyards?
It had become popular with the Victorians to drink in the beauty of old graveyards: mist shrouding the past, breathtaking light on ancient stone, the remoteness of hidden places. It was all part of the sublime and the beautiful.
Robert Southey was part of the productive English group called Lake Poets. Central writers were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Travelling was part of the romantic notion and experience, in fact it was essential to their work. Southey travelled to Scotland, one of the most romantic places on the Victorian travel list. Described in his Journal of a Tour of Scotland in 1819, he also visited Beauly:
Dined at Beauly, a village near the bridge, which takes its name from Beaulieu Priory, here called a Cathedral. Several huge iron kettles were lying out of doors here—a great deal of salmon being pickled here, for exportation. Some fine elms, sycamores, and ashes are standing by the ruins, and a few fruit trees, the remains of what the Monks had planted ; they are now in decay, (reformation having carried ruin with it in all these places !) but the fruits (cherries, apples and pears) are remembered as having been of the very best kind. It is rather an extensive ruin, with some trefoil windows, an uncommon form, which did not deserve imitation. The area, as usual, serves for a cemetery. A few bones and skulls have been collected, and laid decently in some of the recesses of the wall. On one of the grave stones is the figure of a warrior much defaced, but still showing by how rude an artist it was sculptured.
Seems he wasn’t really smitten with Beauly.
Southey was not the first romantic poet to visit. John Keats, one of the icons of the literary movement looking for the sublime in nature and finding beauty in ruins, had been here just a few months earlier with his fried Charles Brown. Together they composed On Some Skulls in Beauley Abbey, near Inverness.
This idiot-skull belonged to one,
A buried miser’s only son,
Who, penitent, ere he’d begun
To taste of pleasure,
And hoping Heaven’s dread wrath to shun,
Gave Hell his treasure.
Southey and Keats were following what Thomas Gray had set in motion with his Elegy Written in a Country-Churchyard (1751). A meditation of death very popular among the literary youth of the time.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The beauty of a country churchyard. Beauly and beauty – the phonetic similarity is explained by the story of Mary Queen of Scots visiting in summer 1564 and finding this a beautiful place (beau lieu).
A queen might have given the place its name or so might the monks who settled here in 1230. They came from Burgundy in France and belonged to the Valliscaulian order as did the monks in Pluscarden and Ardchattan.
Sources and further reading:
Robert Southey: A Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819. London, Murray, 1929