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The Joys of a Regional Poem: The Oxford Book of Local Verses

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? Read the rest of this entry