Palimpsest Poetry – The Greys Court Challenge

At one time or another – whether on a school trip or the odd bank holiday weekend – lots of you have probably spent an afternoon mooching around a stately home, a sprawling estate or historic site. We’ve certainly done our fair share of staring up at galleries of formidable family portraits and wondering who can have possibly read all those shelves and shelves of leather-bound books…

It’s this sense of ‘living history’ that we’re  asking you to explore in this poetry challenge, and we’ve teamed up with our friends at the National Trust property Greys Court to bring you a brand new challenge all about memory and history – and what these mean to you.

One of five panels of sixteenth and seventeenth century Swiss stained glass on the Landing at Greys Court, Oxfordshire.
One of five panels of sixteenth and seventeenth century Swiss stained glass on the Landing at Greys Court. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The National Trust
National Trust historian Merlin Waterson gives us some background on the history of the Trust, and its role today:

The National Trust’s roots lie in the nineteenth century response to the impact of industrialization of the environment and on the quality of people’s lives. The first practical step was a letter of 1884 from the housing reformer Octavia Hill to the solicitor Robert Hunter, wanting to know if there was any legal way a garden in Deptford in London could be permanently preserved. Hunter replied that the legislation simply didn’t exist.

It set him thinking about how a public body might do that job, and he came up with the name, ‘National Trust’. It took 10 years to turn that idea into a reality. Right from the start, the idea brought together radical, socialist thinkers with key establishment figures, including traditional landowners and the Royal Family.

The National Trust’s three founders, Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley, would be very comfortable in today’s Trust. They might be surprised by a council house in Liverpool or a great industrial museum, but they’d very quickly get the point – that all these places give inspiration, enlightenment, historical understanding and pleasure.

A Closer Look: Greys Court
Journalist Alison Dalby introduces us to the past owners and inhabitants of a famous National Trust property, Greys Court.

An Elizabethan courtier, an 18th century hell-raiser and a dedicated supporter of the Women’s Institute may seem an unlikely group. But they are among a cast of characters that brought life and colour to Greys Court, a National Trust property and one of Oxfordshire’s most historic mansions.

The first inhabitants at Greys Court were the De Grey family who had a 14th century medieval manor on the estate – but the current house was built in 1575 as a fashionable Elizabethan mansion of courtier and MP for Oxford, Sir Francis Knollys.

SIR FRANCIS KNOLLYS, (c1514-96), Lord Treasurer of the Household, English School, portrait, 1586, at Greys Court, Oxfordshire.

Francis Knollys was the man who rebuilt the mansion at Greys Court as it stands today in the 1570s, using materials from the original medieval buildings. He was extremely high in the Elizabethan Court and was married to Catherine Carey (the daughter of Mary Boleyn, and therefore cousin and some say half-sister to Elizabeth I).

By the 18th century, the house had been inherited by the Stapleton family who stayed for over two centuries. Greys Court was transformed, however, from 1937 into the home of Sir Felix and Lady Brunner and their four young sons. The family’s keepsakes and memorabilia now fill the comfortable rooms, telling a wealth of fascinating family stories: tales of the theatre, wartime evacuees, Christmas traditions, schooldays, Liberal politics, visits to Switzerland, afternoon teas. At Christmas, the room was adorned with holly and ivy from the garden and cards featuring robins would be displayed on the marble mantelpiece. After the Queen’s speech, the afternoon would be spent playing the piano and harp followed by Lady Brunner’s special Christmas cake washed down with China tea.

The story of Greys Court through its objects

Sir Henry Irving, Victorian actor-manager at the Lyceum and the first actor to be knighted, was Lady Brunner’s grandfather. It sounds as though he was rather an imposing gentleman – his stage assistant at the Lyceum was the young Bram Stoker and it’s said that Irving inspired the character of Dracula!

 

Greys Court fireplace. ©National Trust/ Tim Hemming

This Tudor fireplace was only rediscovered in 1986, when builders accidentally knocked through the fake wall behind which it had been concealed for centuries. Originally the kitchen would have been the Tudor Entrance Hall, so this fireplace would likely have been a central social point within the house during the time of Francis Knollys.

A dolls’ house re-creation of a fictional Georgian mansion, inspired by Greys Court. ©National Trust/ Tim Hemming

This dolls’ house was made by a local lady for her children. She was initially inspired to create it after seeing a series of miniature rooms on display at Greys Court in the 1970s, and her dollhouse only came into the Greys collection a few years ago. It took her forty years to complete and she’s been very inventive with everyday objects (beads from broken jewellery for chandeliers, sliced cotton reels for the backs of the kitchen chairs, her grandmother’s handkerchief for bed hangings…)

Eighteenth century longcase clock. ©National Trust/ Tim Hemming

This longcase clock dates from 1730 and was created from oak by William Pearce of Tavistock. Its case depicts a Japanese town or village on the door panel, with a design of a pier on the base. The staff at Greys Court wind all the clocks throughout the mansion every single week – the chiming really re-creates the atmosphere of a lived in home!

Palimpsests and poetry

One way of viewing houses such a Greys Court, made up of layers of history, personalities, objects and activity, is as a kind of palimpsest. A palimpsest is the term for a piece of parchment or paper which has been written on, had the original writing rubbed out or removed, and then written over time and time again – with the traces of each layer of old writing still just visible beneath the new.

The National Trust itself, when talking about the significance of conservation of places such as Grey Court, states that:

It is about revealing and sharing the significance of places and ensuring that their special qualities are protected, enhanced, understood and enjoyed by present and future generations.

National Trust Conservation Strategy Group, September 2003

This idea of a something that eternally changes, and yet still bears discernible traces of each change, is a hugely evocative one; we can see it as an idea that has a resonance far beyond the physical object of the manuscript.

It’s certainly been an intriguing idea for writers, including Thomas De Quincey, who saw the palimpsest as the perfect metaphor for the human brain:

What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, oh reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet, in reality, not one has been extinguished

From ‘The Palimpsest’ by Thomas De Quincey in Suspiria de Profundis, 1845

The idea of the palimpsest can operate in lots of different ways for a writer. You might see it as an evocation of memory and nostalgia – think of the celebration of Christmas with the Brunner family, each year’s festivities a warm echo of the one preceding, which build to form a picture of family life.

On the other hand, you might see the palimpsest as something eerie, or ghostly – the past inhabitants of Greys Court eternally wandering its spacious hallways, treading soundlessly on its plush carpets, mourning for the life they led there. Bernard O’Donoghue’s poem ‘Palimpsest’ is a good example of the haunting potentialities of the palimpsest poem.

Would Frances Knollys look back wistfully on the sixteenth century pageantry his family once enjoyed in those stately rooms? What might he think about what’s now replaced these – easter egg hunts in the gardens instead of courtly masques and lute music! And is there perhaps always something indefinably sad about our memories being ‘written over’, fading but not quite forgotten? Or is this something we should be grateful for?

The challenge
Create a palimpsest poem from the perspective of one of the objects or characters that make up the fascinating history of Greys Court. You might want to trace the life of that object or person over the course of just a few years, or alternatively, you might want to recreate a voice that echoes down the centuries, charting the slow passage of time and all the changes that come with it. You might even want to write your poem from the perspective of the house itself – or you might like to use these ideas about palimpsests, memory and history to create a poem about something completely different.

Example: 

This snippet of a poem is written from the perspective of the Greys Court longcase clock (above), re-imagining its own history from its very first moments:

I remember something
of sap and branch, of roaring wind and sky,

I remember the silver smile of the axe
which charmed my roots from the ground.

I remember lands I’d never known
tracing sudden canal paths across my skin,

a crust of varnish, the bite of glass and gold

[…]

More examples:
Caroline Harris’ poem imagines the physical body as a palimpsest:

 I stare at my palms now, trace the pathways and birthmarks
of my tired body

From ‘Ya’aburnee’  by Caroline Harris

Tallulah Hutson uses repetition of the phrase ‘I remember’ to recreate a beguiling, befuddling memory of early childhood.

 I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders

[…]
“I remember being wrapped up in a pram”

[…]

“I remember the three of us, like musketeers”

[…]

“I remember climbing across/ the banisters

From ‘The Accident’  by Tallulah Hutson

Form
The idea of a poetic palimpsest is a great springboard into experimenting with form – if you’d like to! Poetic structures such as the villanelle and the sestina create their effect partly through repetition, a kind of circling back to or around an idea or an image (as in Tallulah’s poem, above). Daisy Hirst’s ‘Tweed Sestina’ is also a great poem to look at if you’re considering experimenting with one of these forms. This might be an interesting way to create that sense of recurrence and change that makes the palimpsest so powerful.

How to Enter

This challenge has now closed – you can read the winning and commended poems by following the links at the side of this page.

The judges said:

“We were amazed and incredibly impressed by the creativity and originality of all the poems we received. Choosing the six for display was a real challenge as the quality of all the submissions was so high. We’re delighted to be displaying the winning six around the mansion at Greys Court and would like to thank all the Challenge participants for their incredible work and unique perspectives on this beautiful property.”

Thanks to all who entered, and congratulations to the winners!

 

Huge thanks to our friends at the National Trust and specifically at Greys Court for helping to make this challenge possible.

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