Fishing for words

St Mary’s Church, Whitby, with the ruins of Whitby Abbey behind it. Picture by Martin Oates 

In my dad’s column from 14th March 1981, he talks about a poem written by a woman called Susan K Phillips who was born near Boroughbridge in 1831 and who often spent the summer months in Whitby. He was talking about her work ‘The Whitby Bells’ and discussing whether the title referred to the bells of St Mary’s Church, which sits atop East Cliff.

He came to the conclusion that they were the bells mentioned in the poem:

‘The Whitby bells, so full and free,

They ring across the sunny sea,

That the great ocean god, who dwells

‘Mid coral groves and silvery shells,

Wakes to the summons joyously.’

Mrs Phillips had several collections of poetry published in the mid-1800s and became known as the ‘poet of the fisher-folk’ because many of her works celebrated the lives of the men and their families who were such an important part of coastal life.

I didn’t find a great deal of information about her online, but I did come across an obituary written not long after her death at the age of 66 on 25th May 1897, in which the writer said: “She was a frequent visitor to Whitby and was beloved by the rough, but kind-hearted, fishermen. She was a true friend to them in their time of sorrow, and in the hard lot of those who are engaged on the perilous waters of the North Sea.”

Mrs Phillips became a widow herself just twelve years into her marriage to the portrait artist Henry Wyndham Phillips and was no doubt greatly empathetic to the plight of the wives of fishermen who were drowned at sea. One of her most moving poems is called ‘Lost With All Hands’ and when you read it, you can’t help but imagine that she must have witnessed the devastation of families whose loved ones did not return. The poem tells of a wife preparing her small home for Christmas, with the Yule candle waiting to be lit by the husband who never comes back.

The title of another, ‘The Fisherman’s Funeral’ is self-explanatory, and describes how he is laid to rest up on the cliff top, presumably in St Mary’s graveyard:

‘And the widow’s sob, and the orphan’s wail, jarred through the joyous air;

How could the light wind o’er the sea blow on so fresh and fair?

How could the gay waves laugh and leap, o’er sand and stone,

While he, who knew and loved them all, lay lapped in clay alone?’

While researching this, I also came across a picture of the stone memorial cross that stands at the top of the 199 steps up to the church. Erected just one year after Susan Phillips’ death, it is dedicated to Caedmon, who is credited with composing the first Old English poem ever to be written down.

Caedmon, a reportedly tuneless, uneducated and illiterate man, lived with St Hilda’s monastic community in the 7thcentury at Streoneshalh, which was the predecessor of today’s Whitby Abbey. He was a herdsman and tended to the animals, sleeping with them in their sheds. One night he had a dream in which he was visited by an angel who told him to compose a hymn about ‘The Creation’. He rushed to tell Hilda, and despite the fact he was not known to be able to sing, immediately sang the hymn in a ‘heavenly voice’. Hilda urged him to write down the words which, miraculously, he could also suddenly do.

Encouraged by the abbess, Caedmon became a monk and began to write many works, hymns and poems about Christian life. His story was told by the Venerable Bede in his 8th century ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. Bede included a Latin translation of the words of Caedmon’s original hymn which became known as ‘God the Creator’. It was subsequently translated back into Old English, so it not possible to know how true it is to the actual words penned by Caedmon. No version of the original is still in existence. Caedmon is said to have died in the monastery hospice in AD 680. As he had a premonition of his own death, he was able to gather his friends and loved ones around him as he took his last breath.

Despite Bede’s account describing Caedmon as a prolific writer, ‘God the Creator’ is the only example of his work that still exists.

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th and the Gazette & Herald on 17th  March 2021

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