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by Littlestone
All is still
Image credit Willow
Emmeline Fisher was born in 1825 in Poulshot, Wiltshire and died (aged 39) in 1864. Her mother was William Wordsworth’s first cousin. Although Emmeline published a book of verse in 1856 she is perhaps best remembered today for the poem she wrote on the opening of Dean Merewether’s 1849 tunnel into Silbury. The poem, along with other items, was placed in a ceramic urn and left at the end of the Merewether tunnel where it lay undisturbed for some 160 years. The urn was finally unearthed by Richard Atkinson during his and the BBC’s ‘activities’ there at the end of the 1960s. This 1849 Silbury ‘time capsule’ was at some point then deposited in the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury where it seems to have languished unnoticed until 2005. The urn itself has subsequently been ’lost’ but its contents, including Emmeline Fisher’s poem, are kept (though sadly not displayed) at the Alexander Keiller Museum. Mike Pitts, who was for some time curator at the Alexander Keiller Museum, discusses the contents of the urn (and Emmeline Fisher’s poem) in the January-February 2008 issue of the British Archaeology Magazine.*
It’s interesting to speculate why Emmeline Fisher, a young woman of 24 and Wordsworth’s second cousin, should have written her poem in the way that she did.** For example Emmie alludes, in the last few lines of the poem, to what seems to be the ‘pagan’ practice of strewing (human) ashes amid the corn and, by comparison, the Christian practice of interment? Was there some renewed interest in paganism and Druidism at the time Emmie wrote her poem that was rattling the Church authorities, of which her father was a respected member?
Who knows, but one thing is certain, after some 160 years Emmeline Fisher’s poem, with its apology to our forefathers who built Silbury, stands as the only half-decent thing ever to have been placed within the structure by modern hands. Thankfully even Emmie’s poem is no longer there, though sadly the Atkinson/BBC’s corroding iron tunnel work struts of the late 1960s (not to mention English Heritage’s thousands of plastic sacks of the early 21st century) still are.***
 English Heritage’s 2008 ‘conservation’ project at Silbury


The envelope

Emmie’s poem was placed in an envelope with the following inscription, on the obverse, in the same hand (hers?) as the poem itself –
Lines on the Opening of
Silbury Hill, written by
Miss Emmeline Fisher,
Daughter of The Reverend William
Fisher, Canon of Salisbury and
Rector of Poulshot in Wiltshire
August 1849.


The poem in the urn
Suggested by the opening
made in Silbury Hill,
Aug 3rd 1849
Bones of our wild forefathers, O forgive,
If now we pierce the chambers of your rest,
And open your dark pillows to the eye
Of the irreverent Day! Hark, as we move,
Runs no stern whisper through the narrow vault?
Flickers no shape across our torch-light pale,
With backward beckoning arm? No, all is still.
O that it were not! O that sound or sign,
Vision, or legend, or the eagle glance
Of science, could call back thy history lost,
Green Pyramid of the plains, from far-ebbed Time!
O that the winds which kiss thy flowery turf
Could utter how they first beheld thee rise;
When in his toil the jealous Savage paused,
Drew deep his chest, pushed back his yellow hair,
And scanned the growing hill with reverent gaze, –
Or haply, how they gave their fitful pipe
To join the chant prolonged o’er warriors cold. –
Or how the Druid’s mystic robe they swelled;
Or from thy blackened brow on wailing wing
The solemn sacrificial ashes bore,
To strew them where now smiles the yellow corn,
Or where the peasant treads the Churchward
Emmeline Fisher (1825-1864) 
NB Both the paper on which the poem is written and the envelope which held it appear to be handmade (it’s difficult to tell from the photo in the British Archaeology Magazine but the bottom and right-hand side of the letter-paper seem to have a deckle edge). The ink may be made from oak gall which means it’s probably acidic and will eventually eat though the paper if left untreated. Emmie’s poem itself is important but so too are the materials used to record it – let’s hope English Heritage are taking the necessary steps, as they undoubtedly took at Silbury itself, to preserve this item for posterity.


March 2009

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