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An excerpt from “The Sexton” by Isaac Ewan

In The Caravanserai, a collection of poems by the early 20th Century Scottish poet Isaac Y. Ewan, there is an impressive and unique composition entitled “The Sexton”. A sexton is a religious official charged with taking care of a church building and its contents, organising the ringing of its bell and sometimes burying the dead in its graveyard.

Ewan portrays his sexton as “an old man with sober step and slow”, one who describes his own life’s calling in stark terms: “Among the silent dead in order laid, full forty years I’ve plied my pick and spade.” Ewan imagines entering into a conversation with the old man as “he stood a moment near a crumbling tomb, a patriarchal figure in the gloom”.

The sexton points out around a dozen individual gravestones. He describes the life and death of each person who lies buried beneath. A comedian, a drunkard, an atheistic mathematician and a violinist are among the characters beautifully described in melancholy tones, accompanied by Ewan’s trademark – a remarkably profound insight into the personality and motives of each one.

The sexton describes one particular man who “lies in peace, peculiar and deep, the rarest plant in all my plot of sleep.” He describes him as a quiet, contented, devout man of faith who died in winter time. The sexton recounts the dying man’s final words, followed by a record of his burial amid the snow:

“A dimness falls upon the page of time;
Upon the things eternally sublime
The veil is rising and the light grows clear:
The dawn of endless day is drawing near.
These fearsome billows find me unafraid –
The Prince of Peace Himself my peace has made.
My hope holds fast; my heart is free from fear;
No groundless theory can help me here.
I know, I know: I know my soul is free,
For, in the Blessed Man Who died for me,
Love gave the flaming sword a righteous sheath,
And left the everlasting arms beneath.
Though dark and wild the waters round me ride
It’s my own country on the other side,
And all is well. I’m sailing through the surf,
Not to a marble slab, or tomb of turf,
Or solemn vault beneath cathedral dome,
But with my sail and rudder set for home.
My sea-strained boat, broken in hull and spar,
Rocks water-logged across the harbour bar
Through blinding spume and spray; but here before,
My Pilot Ship has passed to yonder shore,
Leaving a trail of glory in its wake
That lights the very waves that o’er me break
With love’s effulgency. A Royal Barque
Has cleft for me these billows cold and dark,
Breasting alone the fury of their wrath,
For all the ransomed train to form a path.
Past rocks and shoals, through fog and stormy blast,
Preserved by faith I shall arrive at last.
On arms of love amidst these waters wild
I’m kept and carried like a weary child,
Awearied with the way and wanting home,
No more the distant, lonely wastes to roam.
Far, far behind the realm of shadow lies.
Realities are dawning on my eyes.
Farewell all disappointments, griefs and fears;
Farewell all trials, failures, sighs and tears;
Farewell the unseen pathway in the night;
Farewell sweet faith that giveth place to sight.”

In dazzling whiteness dawned the burial morn;
The glist’ning tassels clothed each twig and thorn;
A breathless stillness o’er the landscape hung;
In tones subdued the simple hymn was sung:

“Fallen asleep,
Lying at rest,
Tranquil and deep,
Safe on His breast!
Life’s journey o’er,
Heav’n’s portal passed,
Pilgrim no more,
Safe home at last!
Safe home at last!

“No more to fear,
No more to die,
Shed every tear,
Breathed every sigh!
All sorrows borne,
All trials past,
No more to mourn,
Safe home at last!
Safe home at last!”

And so he passed (not as the guilty go
Beneath the jailor’s grasp to dreaded woe;
Down to the dismal dungeon-house of gloom,
Beyond the solemn iron bars of doom)
As if some sombre-liv’ried servant drew
The curtains back to let a prince pass through,
Death in its awful aspect seemed to be
But uniformed in sable dignity
To usher in an heir. A son was home;
Ambassador afar no more to roam.
And here his body lies, thus to await
A rousing knock upon the earthen gate,
A sudden, gathering, trumpet shout on high,
A clarion call from far infinity
To penetrate the silent, sacred seal
And all the fulness of his hope reveal.