The Village Church

The Village Church

‘The Village Church’ is a poem best read within the building it describes. Rev Smith presents himself as our guide, pointing out the church’s features with plenty of words such as ‘behold’, ‘lo’ and ‘observe’. As well as describing the visual features of the church, Smith is also keen to draw moral and spiritual lessons – edifying the soul and well as simply satisfying the curiosity of the reader.

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter metre (de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum) – more modest than the grander pentameter line, but well suited to a poem about a rural village. The rhythm is smooth and musical, though there are occasional moments of awkwardness, as when a stressed beat falls on a word that is usually unstressed, such as ‘the’ and ‘and’.

The language is self-consciously poetic, with plenty of archaic words such as ‘ere’, ‘yore’, ‘oft’, and even the medievalism ‘yclept’ (meaning ‘called’). The diction creates an elevated literary tone, though it is sometimes a little strained, and doesn’t always feel appropriate to the humble subject matter.

The rhyme scheme runs ababbcdbd – in other words, the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second, fourth, fifth and seventh, and the sixth and eighth. The way the fifth line holds on to the rhyme of the fourth slows the whole pace of the poem down – this is not a text to be hurried through, but rather savoured at leisure, readers taking their cue perhaps from the reflective loiterer described in verse LII.

The poem describes a particular space, and in a way, recreates that space in poetic form. The technical term for a verses is a stanza – an Italian word meaning ‘room’. Like rooms, stanzas are defined by boundaries and limits – in this case of Smith’s poem, eight lines long, and eight syllables wide. Smith invites us to wander round each stanza, taking in its features before we move on. The church becomes, in effect, a space we create in our imaginations, prompted by the poet’s images and moral lessons.

The poem at several places has the feel of a momento mori – reminding us that we are merely mortal, and that our human lives will sooner or later come to an end. The dead live on in the collective memory of the parish, however, through the memorial texts that fill the church. At the very end of the poem, Smith himself joins the ranks of the dead, imagining himself in the future as posterity will see him – as a long-gone author whose soul lives on in heaven. For Smith too, however, a connection with the living endures – in his case, through the poem itself, which is also a memorial text, and Smith’s very own monument. Ultimately, holding past and present together is the church itself, which both points to what has gone before, and also continues to sustain community, piety and worship in the present.

‘The Village Church’ is not necessarily great literature, but it is not without spiritual depth. When we read it, we are invited to stand at the crossroads of past and present, and to marvel in awe, at what a very special function village churches like All Saints have.