In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads The Oxford Book of Local Verses, chosen by John Holloway
In the small seaside town of Bideford in Devon, you can find this three-line epitaph adorning the gravestone of a woman named Mary Sexton:
Here lies the body of Mary Sexton,
Who pleased many a man, but never vex’d one,
Not like the woman who lies under the next stone.
The verse expands, each line getting longer as the sentence reaches its venomous tip, the rhymes of Sexton’s name getting more and more Byronic and absurd. Behind the triplet there is a story, though precisely what the story is, the verse is content to hint at rather than state: in what capacity did Mary ‘please many a man’? Is it fortuitous that her name contains ‘Sex’? Who is the woman lying in the neighbouring grave? One is tempted to suspect a family plot of both kinds: was there some sort of sibling rivalry at work here?
The Oxford Book of Local Verses, where I encountered this intriguing three-line piece of doggerel, doesn’t gloss these or other matters, perhaps because they can no longer be ascertained. That is one of the joys of such local verse: even when it is not anonymous, strictly speaking – we have Mary’s name, after all – it is ‘anonymous’ in that we know little of the biographies surrounding the authors of such rhymes, or their subjects. There’s an air of mystery hanging around these poems.
Elsewhere in Britain – The Oxford Book of Local Verses takes in the various regions of England, Wales, Scotland, ‘and elsewhere’ – we find folk wisdom dispensed in this simple Hampshire rhyme about bee-keeping:
A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.
Meanwhile, in the village of Dunmow in Essex, we find the following inscription, in the Flitch of Bacon inn:
Painted in Gold
Ye Flitch behold
Of famed Dunmow
Then here should call
Fond couples all
And Pledge it
In a Toaste.
The story here concerns the ‘Dunmow flitch’, a tradition which dates from the thirteenth century, in which a married couple, after a year of matrimony, would be awarded a flitch of bacon if they could prove that during their first twelve months of being married they had never had a quarrel. This tradition is mentioned in the fourteenth-century allegorical poem Piers Plowman, but it’s nice to see that the ritual has been inscribed at the local pub where it originated, too.
Local verse is also an opportunity for local rivalry too, as well as pricking the sense of regional pride which can easily spill over into tribalism. One of the best examples of this comes from Boston in Lincolnshire (the town famous for its ‘stump’ and for giving its name to the capital of Massachusetts):
Boston Boston Boston!
Thou hast nought to boast on
But a grand sluice, and a high steeple,
And a proud conceited ignorant people,
And a coast which souls get lost on.
Above all, though, The Oxford Book of Local Verses provides a window onto the traditions and customs of British life, from bee-keeping to cow-milking, hop-picking to bell-ringing. There’s also a fair selection of local riddles, an English tradition going back to the dawn of English verse and the Anglo-Saxon brainteasers found in the tenth-century Exeter Book. This Shropshire riddle, for instance, offers a way into the thriving world of shops and trade that was once London Bridge: ‘As I was going over London Bridge I saw a steel house, / It had four-and-twenty windows and wouldn’t hold a mouse.’ The answer is ‘a thimble’. Or this, from Herefordshire: ‘There was a thing was three days old / When Adam was no more; / The same thing was but three weeks old / When Adam was four score.’ The answer? The moon. Such rhymes must once have been used for social occasions, to encourage children to think or for neighbours to exchange over tavern conversation.
And this is what The Oxford Book of Local Verses captures and distills so well, often with levity and gallows humour: the best of life and the worst of death, the whole gamut of human life from the cradle to the not-so-grave. From Lincolnshire, we have this couplet on untimely versus timely death:
Sad is the burying in the sunshine,
But bless’d is the corpse that goeth home in rain.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.