‘When we wake – with Thee – we shall be satisfied’ (Jean Ingelow) ... the ‘Sleeping Children’ in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The death of a child is heart-breaking for any parent – no matter what age the child is, no matter what age the parent is. For generations, Michelangelo’s Pieta has challenged us to think of a mother’s grief at the death of her son on Good Friday. More recently, Jürgen Moltmann has challenged us to think of the Father’s suffering at his Son.
As we prepare at this late stage in Lent for Good Friday, perhaps our thoughts might turn today to the grief of parents at the death of children.
I am reminded of Francis Chantrey’s marble sculpture, ‘The Sleeping Children,’ in Lichfield Cathedral, which inspired my choice of a Poem for Lent this morning, ‘The Snowdrop Monument (in Lichfield Cathedral)’ by Jean Ingelow.
Chantrey’s statue depicts Ellen-Jane and Marianne Robinson asleep in each other’s arms on a bed. The statue was commissioned by their mother, Ellen-Jane Robinson (née Woodhouse), after they died in 1813 and 1814. The statue can be seen in the south-east corner of Lichfield Cathedral, where it was placed in 1817. Its beauty, simplicity and grace make it one of Chantrey’s finest works and one of the great works of English sculpture.
The sculpture depicts the two small girl’s lying asleep on a bed in each other’s arms. It depicts a tragic story that begins in 1812, when Ellen-Jane’s husband, the Revd Canon William Robinson, who had become Prebendary of Pipa Parva in Lichfield Cathedral in 1808, contracted tuberculosis and died on 8 April 1812 in his 30s. William Robinson was Rector of Stoke-on-Trent and Swynnerton; his grandfather, James Robinson, a Lichfield merchant, built Donegal House in Bore Street, Lichfield, in 1730. At the end of the 18th century, this house became the townhouse of Lord Donegall, who owned Fisherwick Hall Comberford Hall nearby.
In 1813, Ellen-Jane and her elder daughter, also Ellen-Jane, were on a trip in Bath. The girl’s nightdress caught fire while she was preparing for bed and she died of her burns. The following year, the younger daughter, Marianne, became sick and died while they were in London. Within three years, Ellen-Jane had lost her entire family and in her distress she commissioned Francis Chantrey to sculpt a likeness of her lost children.
Ellen-Jane told Chantrey how in the past she had watched as her daughters fell asleep in each other’s arms and this is how she wanted them represented. She was inspired too by Thomas Banks’s Boothby Monument in Saint Oswald’s Church, Ashbourne, with the daughter of Sir Brooke Boothby who had died in childhood. Chantrey visited this monument and then returned home to work on the sculpture, carved from white marble, with the younger sister holding a bunch of snowdrops.
The work caused a sensation at the Royal Academy Art Exhibition in 1816. It was placed in the south-east corner of Lichfield Cathedral in 1817 and remains there to this day. A black marble plaque above the statue recalls their father, Canon William Robinson.
Donegal House, Bore Street, beside the Guildhall, once the Lichfield town house of the Robinson family (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2010)
The statue inspired the poet William Lisle Bowles in 1826 to write a poem, ‘Look at those sleeping children. However, the poem by the English poet and novelist poet Jean Ingelow (1820-1897) is better known.
Ingelow was born on 17 March 1820 in Boston, Lincolnshire. As a girl, she contributed verses and tales to magazines, but her first volume, A Rhyming Chronicle of Incidents and Feelings, was not published until she was 29. The poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson said the collection was charming andeclared he should like to know the author – they subsequently became friends.
Her books of verses and collections of poems made her a popular writer by the 1860s, with many of her poems set to music popular entertainment in both England and the US.
She went on to become a popular novelist too and the author of children’s stories, which show the influence of Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald. The last years of her life were spent in Kensington, and she outlived her popularity as a poet. She died on 20 July 1897 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.
Her poems, collected in one volume in 1898, have often the genuine ballad note, and her songs were successful. One of her poems is discussed by the characters in Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence (Chapter 7). However, her poems came to be lampooned and parodied and were marked by affectation and stilted phraseology, with false archaism and deliberate assumptions of unfamiliar and unnecessary synonyms for simple objects. Nevertheless, she wrote, a sweetness of sentiment and a delicate underlying tenderness., and today’s poem seeks to capture a mother’s grief at the death of her children.
Lichfield Cathedral: the statue of the Robinson children inspired Jean Ingelow to write her poem, ‘The Snowdrop Monument (in Lichfield Cathedral)’ (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2010)
The Snowdrop Monument (in Lichfield Cathedral) by Jean Ingelow
Marvels of sleep, grown cold!
Who hath not longed to fold
With pitying ruth, forgetful of their bliss,
Those cherub forms that lie,
With none to watch them nigh,
Or touch the silent lips with one warm human kiss?
What! they are left alone
All night with graven stone,
Pillars and arches that above them meet;
While through those windows high
The journeying stars can spy,
And dim blue moonbeams drop on their uncovered feet?
O cold! yet look again,
There is a wandering vein
Traced in the hand where those white snowdrops lie.
Let her rapt dreamy smile
The wondering heart beguile,
That almost thinks to hear a calm contented sigh.
What silence dwells between
Those severed lips serene!
The rapture of sweet waiting breathes and grows.
What trance-like peace is shed
On her reclining head,
And e’en on listless feet what languor of repose!
Angels of joy and love
Lean softly from above
And whisper to her sweet and marvellous things;
Tell of the golden gate
That opened wide doth wait,
And shadow her dim sleep with their celestial wings.
Hearing of that blest shore
She thinks on earth no more,
Contented to forego this wintry land.
She has nor thought nor care
But to rest calmly there,
And hold the snowdrops pale that blossom in her hand.
But on the other face
Broodeth a mournful grace,
This had foreboding thoughts beyond her years,
While sinking thus to sleep
She saw her mother weep,
And could not lift her hand to dry those heart-sick tears.
Could not – but failing lay,
Sighed her young life away.
And let her arm drop down in listless rest,
Too weary on that bed
To turn her dying head,
Or fold the little sister nearer to her breast.
Yet this is faintly told
On features fair and cold,
A look of calm surprise, of mild regret,
As if with life oppressed
She turned her to her rest,
But felt her mother’s love and looked not to forget.
How wistfully they close,
Sweet eyes, to their repose!
How quietly declines the placid brow!
The young lips seem to say,
“I have wept much to-day,
And felt some bitter pains, but they are over now.”
Sleep! there are left below
Many who pine to go,
Many who lay it to their chastened souls,
That gloomy days draw nigh,
And they are blest who die,
For this green world grows worse the longer that she rolls.
And as for me I know
A little of her woe,
Her yearning want doth in my soul abide,
And sighs of them that weep,
“O put us soon to sleep,
For when we wake – with Thee – we shall be satisfied.”
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.