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Ray’s Chapter & Worse: 0th week

Ben Ray is back, discussing poetry, skeletons, and moaning at length about college telephone campaigns

Only a few weeks ago, dear reader, we were wallowing in the midst of the most glorious Easter vac. Long, heady spring days. The burning of tute notes on ceremonial pyres. The joys of avoiding family reunions. And only the faint chance of freak snowfall in mid-Easter. But alas, summer’s lease hath all too short a date, and the long days of library confinement are drawing in. But at least we can all ride on into the valley of Trinity (essays to the left of us, essays to the right of us) knowing we are all refreshed from our long, relaxed Easter break.

At least, my rejuvenated, happy reader, that’s how most people spent their break. But I have to tell you, as you sit here reading this whilst probably sipping a steaming mug of peppermint tea or simply admiring your perfect, smooth skin as it glows with renewed health, that my vac was despairingly different. I have spent the last two weeks chained to a desk at college, doomed to phone grumpy alumni and explain to old women why the we ‘really do need your support’- all whilst forlornly watching children and golden Labradors frolic on the lawns outside without a care in the world. For I, fool that I was, signed up to the college phone campaign.

Now, I accept that I may be exaggerating the trauma of all this slightly. The pain of having to watch all your friends have fun on their vac whilst you phone old people who happened to go to your college is tempered by the frankly ridiculous pay-check you receive at the end of it all. But the truth remains that, as the Oxford streets fill up with excited freshers naively stepping into their third term without an inkling of the prelims horrors that await them, that you can spot those who did the phone campaign by the bags under their eyes and that haggard, haunted look as they studiously avoid mobile phones.

Whilst in the midst of this horrific phone marathon, I stumbled upon this translation by Seamus Heaney (that eternal staple of the A-Level syllabus) of an earlier poem by Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s poem discusses an anatomy engraving of a human skeleton leaning nonchalantly on a shovel, taken from Andreas Vesalius’s anatomy textbook On the Fabric of the Human Body (1543). Heaney cleverly adapts Baudelaire’s message to address the sectarian violence stalking the streets of Belfast and, more importantly, to the question of how – or whether – poetry can deal with it. Now, whilst not comparing my college phone campaign to the Irish Troubles of the 1970s (there were very few petrol bombs planted in the JCR), I couldn’t help but sympathise with this poem’s sentiment slightly. So whilst you gambol happily through 0th week, spare a thought for us poor veterans of the college telephone campaigns. We’ll be curled up under a Bodleian desk somewhere still sleeping it off.

The Digging Skeleton by Seamus Heaney

after Baudelaire


You find anatomical plates
Buried along these dusty quays
Among books yellowed like mummies
Slumbering in forgotten crates,

Drawings touched with an odd beauty
As if the illustrator had
Responded gravely to the sad
Mementoes of anatomy –

Mysterious candid studies
Of red slobland around the bones.
Like this one: flayed men and skeletons
Digging the earth like navvies.


Sad gang of apparitions,
Your skinned muscles like plaited sedge
And your spines hooped towards the sunk edge
Of the spade, my patient ones,

Tell me, as you labour hard
To break this unrelenting soil,
What barns are there for you to fill?
What farmer dragged you from the boneyard?

Or are you emblems of the truth,
Death’s lifers, hauled from the narrow cell
And stripped of night-shirt shrouds, to tell:
“This is the reward of faith

In rest eternal. Even death
Lies. The void deceives.
We do not fall like autumn leaves
To sleep in peace. Some traitor breath

Revives our clay, sends us abroad
And by the sweat of our stripped brows
We earn our deaths; our one repose
When the bleeding instep finds its spade.”

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