When we heard from local writer Michael Williams previously, he was leaving school early to support his family. Labouring behind a warehouse’s granite walls is a kind of slow death for him—he describes choking and suffocating there. But the Grafton Street Park, a former poor house cemetery, becomes for him a place of inspiration, transformation, and re-birth as a writer.
Let’s have him describe this process:
"It was as though from the earth of the little park, under the shade of the tall trees nourished by the bones of the dead, there emanated a subtle and compelling suggestion of mortality that insensibly entered my mind as the morning air entered my lungs. In the grove of cool, murmuring elms—their heads warmed by the sun—beneath the brooding earth, the dead lay thick; and in the whispering leaves, in the blades of green, sweet grass, moving to the wind, the dead re-entered life, were again made part of it—life that is not complete without death. And if dead flesh may suspire into new life through the mysterious veins of the soil, of the trees, the grass, the atmosphere, a volatile yet essential element of the eternal chemistry of creation, may not perished hopes and dreams, forgotten in the depths of the soul, mystically influence the birth of new aspirations and quicken the womb of the spirit? I had dreamed, almost unconsciously, of what the life of the schools, of culture, might mean to me; and my hopes had died; and perhaps their phantoms mingled with the aura of mortality that on this morning of spring sunshine so strangely affected me in the transformed graveyard; bringing to me for the first time what I was never to forget: the feeling of the part played by death in the affairs of life."
[…] Slowly I passed on through the grove..." (pp. 22-3).
“[L]ife…is not complete without death” (p. 22)—that is the moral of the story here. Williams reflects on how the beautiful, physical world of the Grafton Street Park—“the whispering leaves,” “the blades of green, sweet grass”—are nourished, are given life by decaying matter. From his poetic contemplation of composting, Williams moves from the literal to the metaphorical. He realizes that his dead hopes of becoming a writer do not need to remain dead, cut off from his life, but can give birth to “new aspirations.” And that very day, in this very spot, a writer was born: “That night my pen chafed the broken blisters on my fingers” (p. 24). Williams’s account links to popular Victorian notions of the graveyard “as an instructional centre”: “What better opportunity for moral learning than the contemplation of the dead, not in horror, but in a natural situation, where the beauties of nature are combined with art,” as Deborah Trask, Nova Scotia Museum Curator Emerita, writes (p. 36).
School and more formal culture may be out of reach for Williams because of his family’s socio-economic situation. But this park, accessible to even a young warehouse stock clerk, is a place to pause and reflect. It provides time out from the demands of wage labour, allowing for transformative contemplation. The park gives Williams entry into an intellectual and spiritual life, acting as a school in its own right. It enables him to enter the culture as an active agent who can play a part in shaping his culture as a writer. His account of this transformation, published in his memoir, The Book of the High Romance, is proof of this literary and cultural engagement. This is a literary and educational argument for public parks if there ever was one.
Trask, Deborah. Life How Short, Eternity How Long: Gravestone Carving and Carvers in Nova Scotia. Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 1978.
Williams, Michael. The Book of the High Romance: A Spiritual Autobiography. New York: MacMillan, 1918. archive.org
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.