In the nineteenth century, pressures on space because of extensive speculative building development meant that sites held sacrosanct to previous eras came to be regarded as only provisionally valued. The dead were under unprecedented threat of being ‘annexed’ by all-encroaching modernity. Hardy’s poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ (1882) imagines the spectral voices of souls reassembled after a churchyard is dug up, its graves ‘wrenched’ from and re-situated within a plot of consecrated ground that seemed to be terminally shrinking. ‘Jumbled’ newly next to each other, the bodies of the dead are socially ‘levelled’ in a way they never were when living. In a very Hardyan mode of irony, they complain that the ‘verses’ that were inscribed to remember them have become mixed up, so that the ‘drunkard’ and the ‘Teetotal’ – who would have crossed the street to avoid each other when alive – here are carelessly juxtaposed.
In the 1860s, when in London learning the profession as an architect he soon forsook for the pen, Hardy was reputedly put in charge of managing the transfer of graves in Old St Pancras churchyard, in order to make way for the new railway. This job is commemorated both in the ‘Hardy Tree’, which can still be found there, crowded round as it is by relocated gravestones, and (perhaps) in the quiet nod in the poem’s second word to those commuters and cosmopolitans perpetually on the move whose restlessness trumps the desire of the dead for the finality of the last stanza’s ‘Amen’:
“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’
“The wicked people have annexed
The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
Teetotal Tommy should!
“Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or p-ing place
Where we have never lain!
“There’s not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some local strumpet!
“From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane
Deliver us O Lord! Amen!”