Ego Feci Hoc

A man, I was, of flesh and blood and bone,
Nine-hundred years ago, I lived and died;
A Norman mason skilled at cutting stone,
An honored trade in which I took great pride.

Eleven-Hundred Anno Domini
Was when I was appointed to depart
From home and family in Normandy
For England to pursue my freeman’s art.

To Tewkesbury I was sent to build
A Benedictine abbey for a man
Named Sir FitzHamon. Faithful to my guild,
I brought to life the Master Builder’s plan.

The abbey’s limestone came from Caen where quarries
Near the River Orne produced and shipped
The rough-cut rock to English territories;
Building blocks for castle, church, and crypt.

With hammer, chisel, square, and compass, I
Reshaped each stone according to its place.
The finished edifice both pleased my eye
And bore good witness to God’s sovereign grace.

The years have passed, yet still the abbey stands
And serves as England’s largest parish church,
With stones that bear the mark of human hands
Like mine. The signs are there for those who search.

For on a pillar towards the back you’ll see
A mason’s mark I carved so you would know
That he who shaped this pillared stone was me,
Who stood where you now stand, once, long ago.

And what, pray tell, will be the mark that you
Will leave the world to show that you lived, too?

 

Background Notes: Tewkesbury Benedictine monastery was founded in 1087 by a Norman nobleman named Robert FitzHamon, just twenty-one years after the defeat of the English Saxon King Harold by the Norman William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. Construction of the abbey church was begun in 1102 and completed in 1121. In the pictures accompanying the poem, note that although the walls, the tower and the interior columns are original, the lower (Gothic) windows and elaborate vaulting represent later alterations to the structure. The line of the original wooden roof, which stood higher than the present stone vaulting, can be seen on the side of the tower. Tewkesbury is a market town in Gloucestershire located between Gloucester and Worcester. It is located several miles from the nearest railroad line and, with no industrial importance, escaped German bombing in World War 2, thereby ensuring the preservation of its many Elizabethan, half-timbered buildings. Of interest is that William Shakespeare’s younger sister, Joan, lived in Tewkesbury and bore her brother three nephews and one niece. In 1471, at the Battle of Tewkesbury, the War of the Roses ended with the house of York defeating the supporters of Lancaster, a defeat with claimed the life of the Lancaster heir to the throne, Edward, Prince of Wales. A further curiosity is that, after Henry VIII seized all Roman Catholic properties (1536-40), Tewkesbury Abbey was ordered to be torn down so as to extract the value of the lead in the roof. The townspeople rebelled and, after raising an equal amount of money, were given the Abbey in exchange.

 

James A. Tweedie is a recently retired pastor living in Long Beach, Washington. He likes to walk on the beach with his wife. He has written and self-published four novels and a collection of short stories. He has several hundred unpublished poems tucked away in drawers.


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29 Responses

  1. Peter Hartley

    James – they knew a thing or two, these mediaeval architects and master-masons. Many years ago I passed the abbey on the adjacent motorway during a period of severe flooding. Apart from the motorway itself, which was raised many feet above the level of the fields, it was the only man made structure for many miles around that wasn’t completely inundated. It was like an island in the middle of the Pacific. How did they know exactly where to build? We don’t seem to be able to get it right today – building willy-nilly on flood-plains and the tops of crumbling Lincolnshire seacliffs. And they didn’t just leave us their masons’ marks. They often left little visual jokes behind to amuse posterity. I remember working on the conservation of a fifteenth century screen in Devon and quite accidentally looking up to the ceiling to find a goblin leering at me from one of the roof bosses with his tongue sticking out. Thank you for reminding me of it

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Not to mention the Darth Vader gargoyle whimsically carved onto the 20th century neo-Gothic National Cathedral in Washington D.C. :-p

      Reply
  2. Lawrence Fray

    A pleasant poem and a timely reminder that there is much of our wonderful historical legacy to be valued in these days of flux and change—and it end with a pertinent question.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Lawrence, I’m not sure whether the final couple improves the poem or not, but it is certainly a good question–one that I am still trying to answer myself.

      Reply
  3. Yael

    Really nice! I love poetry with a history lesson. What a lovely poem, thank you for sharing, this made my day.

    Reply
  4. Jeff Eardley

    Mr Tweedie, thank you for this lovely poem and accompanying history. We live about two hours from here and have visited many times, except for during the winter floods when the abbey is marooned like an English Mont St Michel. I didn’t know that the stone came from the quarry you mentioned. We know the Orne river very well from our many visits to Pegasus Bridge. I wonder if you have forwarded to the Abbey, info@tewksburyabbey.org.uk
    A most enjoyable read. Thank you.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Jeff, Thank you for the kind words. Peter’s comment also references the seasonal floods, something of which I was unaware. Caen limestone was also used to build the White Tower in London (along with Norwich Cathedral/Castle, much of Canterbury Cathedral–the older parts, I assume–and so on). I imagine they built and towed barges to transport the stone. Quite an undertaking when you consider how long ago all this took place. Sometimes I think we underestimate the past and forget that they were as fully human, clever, and intelligent as we are today–although, of course, we have the advantage of possessing greater knowledge and more sophisticated tools and technology.

      And, yes, I did send the poem to the church email address but did not receive a reply/response.

      Reply
  5. Mike Bryant

    This is a beautiful poem about people making their mark. The mason left his, and the people that raised the money to prevent an overreaching government from destroying their legacy definitely left theirs and all those who have preserved and added to the structure over the centuries have left their marks. James, could you be asking us to leave our mark by supporting those who would fight those who are destroying OUR legacy? Very clever indeed.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Mike, Sadly, some people seem to think they leave their “mark” by destroying things. There are, I suppose, times when this is a good thing (such as slavery or apartheid), but it is not necessarily something to take pride in unless what is torn down is replaced with something better.

      Interesting to note that the second largest parish church in England, Sherbourne Abbey, in Dorset, was also acquired (at great expense) by a local lord (Sir John Horsey) who offered the town the option to purchase it from him rather than have him dismantle it. Carvings of an armored Sir Horsey and his wife mark the spot where they are buried in the abbey.

      And, no, I was not imply anything socio-politically related in the poem. But feel free to read into it whatever you wish!

      Reply
  6. Daniel Kemper

    Terrific poem. I was struck plenty hard without the couplet. It lands on several dimensions. “Consider Phlebas who was once handsome and tall as you” – “The old, the new: this is a matter of time.” [see through not with the eye], i.e. what this life gestures towards. Terrific really.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Daniel,

      Thank you for your comment and references. The Eliot quote is particularly poignant and apropos.

      Reply
  7. Carole Mertz

    This is how I like to experience history. Almost as good as being there at the site. Thank you, Mr. Tweedie. And enjoy all your comments and others’.

    I experienced Tewkesbury first through a series British mystery writer—darn, can’t remember her name just now.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Tewkesbury is a lovely place indeed, and–I should think–a lovely setting for a mystery novel. It is also quite photogenic. I converted one picture into a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle which is at least as good as what I could purchase in a shop. A creative way to capture pleasant memories.

      Reply
  8. C.B. Anderson

    You’ve outdone yourself, James. Every clause is exquisite, fitting like well-done brickwork with its mates. And the overall theme (thrust) of the poems is important, touching, as it does, on more than one mortal human issue.

    As far as the final couplet goes, which is interrogatory, I don’t think it untoward to pose a really good question. It might not add anything to what was written before, but it consequentially completes the thought. And an open closure, if you will.

    Reply
  9. Margaret Coats

    James, in this poem you’ve created a voice that doesn’t sound too much like you in your other work. Not as easy as it might seem–but you’ve done well with this forthright medieval workman. I agree with you that the final couplet is optional; with or without, the poem comes to a satisfactory end. Also agree with CB, that the explicit posing of the question should stay. However, to me as a critical reader, that final couplet adds much more than a good pointed question.

    The voice you create here comes from the other world, and it’s easier to say, “from heaven,” without the final couplet. With these two lines, discussion of the poem must grapple with questions like those about the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Does your mason come from heaven, encouraging people on earth to do good works? In medieval and Renaissance literature, there are only two reasons for a blessed soul to descend: for the glory of God or for the salvation of more souls. If the workman came from purgatory, he would ask for prayers and Masses to help him into heaven, so we can rule that out here. He might, however, come from hell, where the only reasons to ascend are the destruction of God’s glory and the damnation of more souls.

    Overall, your workman seems to be on the side of good and beauty. But what’s interesting is that the argument could go both ways, meaning that this poem is due some very careful reading–and that, I say, makes it a better poem.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      C.B. You are very kind to me today, and I thank you for that. I also appreciate your nuanced support of the final couplet as well as the clever phrase, “open closure!”

      Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Margaret,

      What an interesting read of my poem. As I said to Mike B. in response to his comment, “feel free to read into it whatever you wish!”

      Since you are waxing biblical/theological I will respond by saying that if I were to characterize my Tewkesbury mason I would do so by suggesting that he is a type not unlike the person of Joseph, husband of Mary.

      Like Joseph, my mason is a skilled craftsman, a creator of functional beauty. He is far from being a flambouyant extrovert but is a man of few words (somewhat reminiscent of the shepherd in the movie, Babe).

      My mason leaves family and home behind in service to both his craft and to the Lord. He would not see them as two separate things, but inseparable one from the other.

      My mason would sleep well at night with a clear conscience and he would be steadfast until his assigned work was complete. In all things, he would take great pride in having done his utmost for God’s highest.

      Whether 11th century Normandy was purgatory or heaven I have no idea. But that is where my mason came from, from neither up nor down, but sideways.

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        James, I am sorry, but the speaker of your poem does not speak from 11th century Normandy. You make him say, “The years have passed, yet still the abbey stands/And serves as England’s largest parish church.” No one could have known that before the 16th century. And this fellow died in the 12th century. He is, at the present time of your poem, a spirit asking those who live centuries after he did, what mark they will make to show the world that each one of them lived.

        See, I am reading nothing into your poem. My interpretation comes from what you clearly wrote. The mason speaks in your poem from heaven above or hell below–depending on his intent in posing the final question. Either he wants to encourage others to do good work for God, or he tempts them to self-centered pride in making a name for themselves. There are no mixed motives in either place that he might come from.

        As I said earlier, your poem a profound one because you do not tell his intent clearly in the poem. If I gave this to a group of students, there would be disagreement, because there is a certain amount of egoism in the poem. I would remind them to base their opinions on the poem itself. You as author don’t help them with your reading; you describe the character you intended to create, and while he is there in the poem, so is the question about his present state. You refuse to answer it, and that is proper, because once the poem goes to readers, they may see more than you do. Beware the power of language!

    • .James A. Tweedie

      Margaret,

      I appear to have misread your first comment. My apologies. You are, of course, completely correct in your reading of my poem. As you explain (and as I have already affirmed) readers are free to find things in a poem that the poet never saw! Consider all the interpretations that have been imposed upon poor Will Shakespeare’s sonnets! Your own reading of my poem has opened my eyes to a very interesting alternative–one which reminds me of Eliot’s, “Murder in the Cathedral,” when Becket is surprised to find that, unlike Jesus (who suffered through three temptations), he has been confronted with a fourth–which (in my interpretation) forces him to identify with Job, who had three comforters before being blind-sided by a fourth who totally unravels his pride while morphing into the very voice of God in a whirlwind.

      In response to this fourth tempter, Becket declares, “This last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

      I had never thought of my mason in this way. Like Becket (and Job) I have now found myself blindsided by a new thought; for my mason does indeed speak from the grave and, as you say, he must be speaking from somewhere! And whether from heaven, purgatory, or even hell (if one is permitted to speak from hell a la the rich man and Lazarus), his question can be read as either a warning or an exhortation, or even, perhaps, both.

      Thank you for setting me straight!

      Reply
  10. Sally Cook

    Dear James —
    I will make this brief as I am still engaged in the Great Computer war and cannot anticipate its next action.
    Here is a man searching for beauty. He found and expressed it — it was his job. It only took twenty years or so.
    What he did showed who he was,. It has lasted
    through the centuries – he put his mark on it, and that lasted too.
    I can only wish this for all of us.

    Reply
  11. Damian Robin

    You make poems strongly centered on place and time, James, and frequently about spirit in the place. Though the places are in the contemporary world with its moral decline, you link us to something deeper, stronger, and long-lasting. This one teaches us about past traditional work practice matched by your skill in the telling.

    The presence of the teller is very unlike Larkin’s in “Church-going”who is repeatedly trying to prove the worthlessness of what he finds in churches but keeps visiting nevertheless. Is indifference indifferent if it takes so long to say it is?

    And though your teller talks about the thingness of the church and his physical work and asks about our ‘mark’ compared to his, we sense that the mark is an inner one.

    To link to negatives of today, ’the mark of the beast’ is not used often in religions now. However, there is a movement, particularly around the Chinese Communist Party, that is using those words again. This time to warn those associated with its atheism, life reversal, and soullessness. That they will go down with it.

    The last two lines are stand-alone, being a couplet after many quatrains, and their showing the spirit of the mason(s) and the stones after the compact description of the material work and its present standing. Your mason tells us that the finished edifice was pleasing to his eye and “bore good witness to God’s sovereign grace” and nudges us to show the same in our remarkable or unremarkable ways. Thank you for your (and his) encouragement.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Damian, I am thrilled that my poem provided an opportunity for you to meet my mason, to know his heart, and to be touched by what he had to say.

      I write poetry, of course, but I also write short stories. Sometimes the two genres intertwine and a character and their story come to life in verse.

      It is rewarding and satisfying when readers, like you, tell me that my efforts were successful

      Thank you for gifting me with such a long, thoughtful, and heartfelt comment

      Reply
  12. David Watt

    James, the praise you have received for this poem is well deserved. Most people can relate to craftsmanship, and the desire to leave behind a lasting legacy.

    Introducing the mason as ‘of flesh and blood and bone’ is an ideal way to immediately impress upon the reader the humanity upon which ‘the finished edifice’ owes its strength.

    The questioning final couplet is a deft touch.

    Reply
  13. James A. Tweedie

    Thank you, David, for your affirming/encouraging comment. Your second sentence succinctly summarizes the central themes of the poem. And as for the word, “deft,” I much prefer it as a descriptor of my closing couplet over its auto-spell alternative spelled with an “a,” although that may well be the better choice of words as a descriptor of the author!

    Reply
  14. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    A beautiful, educational, historical poem crafted with words of the finest quality, each serving to create a poem that has certainly made its mark on me. This wonderful piece has taken me straight back to my cathedral-rich homeland and I’m steeped in a warm glow of nostalgia. Thank you, James!

    Reply

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