I don’t write poetry very often, probably because I rather associate it with being lonely and sexually frustrated at Oxford University, where I wrote quite a lot of poetry, most of it not very good and never had a proper relationship with a woman.
But I do occasionally write poems when something deeply moves me, and the last poem I wrote, on November 15, 2015, is a poem I’m rather proud of. I wrote it in New Romney, the largest town on Romney Marsh in Kent early on Sunday morning on that November day.
When people who’ve never been to Romney Marsh hear the words ‘Romney Marsh’ they probably think of some strange dark quagmire with gases rising from rotting and damp vegetation. In fact this was not entirely inaccurate a description of the Romney Marsh a few hundred years ago, but nowadays Romney Marsh is well-drained and extremely picturesque, with lots of lovely green fields, stunning level scenery, and lots of character.
If you travel down to New Romney from Canterbury, after about fifteen miles you start going down rather steep hills, near Lympne. Those hills are in fact the old sea-cliffs which led down directly to the sea when it covered Romney Marsh. But over several hundred years Romney Marsh has been successfully drained, although even today the sea and sand are only a few feet below much of what is now Romney Marsh. It used to be a much more remote area than it is. It was actually quite an unhealthy area to live in the late Middle Ages and early part of the modern age and had malarial swamps and mosquitoes. The name ‘Romney’ has the same etymological route as ‘ruminate’ which initially referred to sheep grazing at pasture.
Romney Marsh is today a very beautiful and in many ways a very romantic area with quite a few ruined buildings and several extremely beautiful old churches, many of which have towers rather than steeples. There is a stunning towered church in New Romney with a most impressive graveyard and I went walking there sometime in 2015 and found the grave of a young German sailor. That night in November I was moved to write a poem about my imaginings about the sailor and also how I saw him as relating to me.
Here’s the poem:
The German sailor
Outside, beyond the double glazing
Of this house on Romney Marsh -
This comfy, wealthy home with
Warm rooms, settees and armchairs
And a larder full of food - tonight,
Past midnight, I sit here alone and hear
The rain and wind cry all around me,
Blowing endlessly out to sea
And marshwards, across the dykes
And jet-black fields of melancholy sheep.
And I remember, a year or so ago
Walking, alone, in the graveyard
Of the old, old church here in New Romney
One winter afternoon, and seeing
The tombstone of a young German sailor -
I think he was seventeen or so -
Who died while in harbour here
About a century ago. I don't know how;
Maybe a foolish punch in a tavern
Did more harm than the puncher meant,
Or perhaps some fever, caught at sea,
Shrivelled his life into a coffined husk.
I think of him now, while I'm safe here and warm
I think of him lying alone and cold -
His neighbours skulls and jigsaws of bones -
Out in the darkness and the wind,
Far from home forever,
Here, in a salty part of this foreign marsh -
Where tonight, to my surprise,
I feel at home.
Written in New Romney, early on Sunday morning, November 15 2015