Today I visited the churchyard of St Mary’s Conwy and saw the distinctive ‘We are Seven’ grave. It was during a church service and so my twinagers and I didn’t venture inside. We did a circuit of the churchyard to the sound of hymns emanating from within and the chime of the clock at midday.
I am finding myself writing quite a bit about churchyard and cemetery folklore, including the Childe of Hale’s grave, multiple memorials of Grace Darling at Bamburgh, the vertical coffin at St John’s Chester and Overleigh cemetery’s Chewing Gum Girl. In St Mary’s churchyard, we saw a distinctive grave on the south side of the church, in a prominent location because of the pathways leading to the south porch and also the association with the sundial. It comprised a distinctive iron canopy topped with seven crosses with the white-painted sign on its southern face: ‘We Are Seven’
It is well maintained and has been integrated into the town’s tourist trail through a sign on its gable. To my limited experience of churchyards, it is unique.
This was a grave that apparently inspired William Wordsworth to write a poem about a girl who insisted she was one of seven siblings (see the Wikipedia entry here), even though only five were still alive and two were buried together in Conwy’s churchyard. I found this useful page about the poem and the grave here. The girl has a funerary life, living in the churchyard cottage and playing among the gravestones with her siblings. She knits stockings and her ‘kerchief sitting beside the graves of her sister and brother. She even sings to them and eats her supper by the graves. The poem gives a rough location for the grave: ‘Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door and they are side by side’ and ‘beneath the churchyard tree’.
For the Chewing Gum Girl, I suggested that the form and materiality of the grave, and the circumstances of death of the commemorated girl, inspired the folklore. Here, I would suggest this is not what has happened. Wordsworth apparently did not get inspired by a visit to Conwy at all for this poem. Instead, I suspect that this is a 19th-century ‘grave’, perhaps or perhaps not commemorating the grave of a child or children, created around a poem, not a poem created around a grave!
However, once the connection between literature and grave is created, they can be both tenacious and circular, making causation difficult to disentangle. This example serves to illustrate how graves foster circular arguments about them and draw their own conclusions that extend beyond literature. To my mind, the material presence of the grave commemorates multiple dimensions of the poem and the dead, including the following:
- the grave commemorates the poem and Wordsworth more than any late 18th-century children;
- the monument is about remembering and forgetting, particularly since names are not mentioned. Indeed, for the grave to be Wordsworth’s literary grave, no names could be mentioned. Had their been a real family of seven children interred here, their names had to be erased to make the grave efficacious in relation to the poem. Of course, the reality is that no names are recorded because there wasn’t really seven children buried here at all and those who are interred here are forgotten;
- of course the grave that apparently inspired Wordsworth, had it actually ever existed in reality, contained only 2 of 7. What was subsequently created during the 19th century was the ultimate romantic mortuary conclusion of the maid in the poem’s assertion; the tomb becomes ‘the seven’ when it never was in the poem. The grave creates a mortuary finale lacking in the poem;
- The way the girl shares in the number (i.e. she is not the 8th with seven brothers and sisters, she is one of seven) has import for the power of this literary grave, since the poem now talks through the graves’ since the Maid is one of its imagined occupants. The little girl is one of the seven. Thus, the grave tells its own tale through the poem.
For me, the house-shape and integrity of the monument evokes these dimensions simultaneously. The iron frame, creating a shared house for the dead, is powerful and collective, permeable and yet inviolate in preventing additional interments or casual disturbance. Its seven crosses mirror the seven souls commemorated and create an architectural unity to the form in a fashion rarely seen in Victorian lithic memorials.
Thus, the monument creates a romantic ‘dwelling’ for the seven, playing and inhabiting the churchyard in death as they had in life. The poem’s maid states ‘two of us at Conway dwell’. Thanks to this monument, now seven dwell there in visitors’ imagination, whether they had existed or not, and whether Conwy was their abode or not.
Of course this is very different from what Wordsworth was talking about. He was talking about knowledge of death and relationships between the living and the dead. One might suggest the girl knows more of death than the man, able to see her relationship to place and the dead, rather than simply to the living. An alternative view is that she is confused about death and mortality, but I feel this isn’t the point. What the monument creates is the opposite of this: a sealed, anonymous lack of remembrance, without stories, without individualities. If the girl understood more of death than her questioner, does this monument understand even less?
I’d like to learn more about who, why and when this grave was constructed, and also a clearer statement than I can find to date regarding the relationship between tomb and text. What is clear is that this is not the tomb that inspired the poem, this is a monument created to masquerade as a grave: the monument to a poem.