This poem – inspired by Byron’s poem “Darkness” – was written in 2000 in response to the report that a coal mining company would shortly be excavating beneath Newstead Abbey. The very real danger that subsidence from the mining operation would seriously damage or destroy the Abbey prompted Byronists all over the world to lobby to stop the operation. We succeeded and Newstead was safe – temporarily. But we need to be mindful how shortsighted greed continues to threaten what is beautiful and valuable beyond mere monetary value. We get complaisant to our, and our descendant’s peril.
by Sallie Tierney
From the peaceful slumber of Eternity
I woke into a nightmare world.
A century and more my weary spirit
Had reposed within the healing halls
Of Death’s sweet palace, prisoner
No more to mortal cares and chaos.
When thunder like a million planets grinding
From their ordered orbits rent my sleep,
And I awoke upon a silent, ravaged hill.
The rotten stumps of ancient oaks
Like broken tombstones slumped
Beneath a shroud of brown and withered
Ferns, the sky a raven’s wing, the pallid sun
A corpse light rising from a vast depression
Stretching far beyond the limits of my view.
The only living thing a cloud of iridescent
Insects whirling at the crater’s rim.
The depths were sheathed in shadow, yet
I knew whatever I’d been roused from death
To witness waited there within the maw
Of that abyss. So, as the feeble light increased,
Seeping slowly like a fetid fog into the pit,
I followed it. The earth was rubble underfoot
As if an antique temple had been toppled
By horrific quake or cataclysm, stones
Like skulls upon the weed-grown path.
What noble place was this, brought down
To such profound destruction, as a carcass
Worried by a pack of famished dogs until the bones
Beneath the flashing teeth are cracked to jagged
Fragments, losing all resemblance to that light hart
That lately graced the forest with its bounding life.
With trembling spirit I descended deeper still,
A Dante into Hell without a guide to steer
My course or tell what scene of horror spread
Before my gaze. Alone and wary I descended
Into that black wilderness. Then deep
Beneath my feet I heard the ghosts of vast
Machines, worm gears grinding in the stygian
Streams of ancient coal seams, blind, voracious
As some monster of the Earth’s primordial infancy,
A mindless juggernaut devouring, devouring.
My soul then knew despair. For there
Upon the edge of that great gaping maw
I saw a fractured slab of stone, a poem carved
And but a single name. A stone I’d set a life before
To mark the grave of Boatswain, faithful friend.
When this forsaken piece of land was still my own,
My heart, my Newstead Abbey. So beloved
From when I stepped, a tender boy in rented coach,
To weedy yard to be a lord of dust and devilry.
It stood above a reedy lake, its gardens wild
With golden gorse, the stately oaks of Sherwood
Sold for Byron debts. But to the boy I was
It was a fairy castle in the purity of morning
Light, its broken walls enchanted battlements,
A child’s fantasy realm, my kingdom. Flawed,
As every human artistry is flawed, yet
The dearer for a sweet fragility, a beauty
In decay. To the last day of my troubled life,
When exiled far from native soil, Newstead
Was the lodestone of my soul, a well of peace
Within the chaos of existence. In truth,
The only one true home I ever knew. And now,
After near a thousand years, now for the sake
Of man’s base greed, for a few sad lumps of coal
The lake, the house, the gardens — gone.
Gone into the abyss. Why bring me back,
Thought I, to break my heart upon this stone?
What had I done to bring this horror on?
Or was it after all impersonal, indifference,
Neglect – demons human-spawned. No
God I could believe in brought such beauty down
To punish faults as petty as my own. No,
What I looked upon was man’s damnation
Of his own best nature – a suicide of spirit,
A cancer nurtured on a meal of shame.
It was a dream. I stood within the welcome shade
Cast by morning sun through the transept’s
Filigree. The silver lake was wreathed in mist.
And Newstead Abbey stood tranquil and whole,
As it has ever been within my mind. A dream.
And not a dream – a warning, the mind’s reminder
Of how close we stand to the crumbling rim,
A hell hand-crafted to our own design,
Creation and destruction ever vying
For the upper hand, a fragile balance
In our power to defend or topple. And lacking
Constant vigilance, comes real this my nightmare.