Twenty-three years ago, I blew off my master’s convocation ceremony and went wandering around a cemetery with a young lady. While hundreds gathered on the brick-ringed lawn of the academic quad at Tufts University to march through the glowing gates of new adult life, R. and I strolled through the iron gates of Mount Auburn Cemetery and meandered by the marble stones of people who had long since passed through the pearly gates. While my name was being read from the rolls of those who had achieved graduate degrees, a man in a golf cart was calling out to R. and me lying on the lawn that this was a cemetery and we should comport ourselves accordingly.
Mount Auburn Cemetery may be a village of the dead, but what a glorious village it is, a Butchart Gardens of the decadently decedent.
Were this April, I would be tempted to quote T.S. Eliot: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” But there is another poem that is better suited to this occasion: “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith (most famous for the play She Stoops to Conquer), published in 1770. It is a paean to a lovely place, a childhood home that, like all memories of youth, cannot be strolled back into. It is still there, but all the there that was there is not there anymore: it is depopulated and dilapidated. Its denizens have not died; no, it has fallen victim to the privatization of the commons, the appropriation of public goods to the pleasure domes of the overenriched few. It starts with this:
Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed,
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!
How often have I paused on every charm,
The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,
The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
The decent church that topt the neighbouring hill,
The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
For talking age and whispering lovers made!
But nothing stays the same. You can never go home again; the houses I grew up in are changed or gone, and the places I knew people in may still be there but the people have moved on. After stooping to conquer me, R. moved on as well, and so did I. And Mount Auburn Cemetery remained, having already been through its change to be an album of marmoreal memorials.
Sweet Mount Auburn. It was once not a farm of headstones but Stone’s Farm, a piece of peaceful rural land nicknamed Sweet Auburn by locals who had read Goldsmith. And, fittingly or ironically, it too was thereafter enclosed, taken from the planting of crops to the planting of corpses – just the well-off ones – and given its current name and state. But it is open to the public; it is credited as a pioneer in the American public parks and gardens movement. So just as death claims us all, the commons have, in their way, reclaimed this farmland, at least for visiting rights.
One may be tempted to say its name would be more apposite in the fall, when all is burning reds and browns. For what is auburn if not a rich brown as of hair that inspires poetry? But even that has not stayed the same. If you want to see the epitaph for the youth of this word, look at any pearly tombstone showing a century’s patina. Auburn comes from Latin alburnus, ‘whitish’ (you may recognize the alb from album). It came through Old French alborne or auborne, and in its middle age – a century or so before Goldsmith – it was sometimes written abrune or abroun. And by way of that it came to be thought of as more a burning brown.
Well, memory, like tombstones, becomes more golden as it fades. Our minds are the goldsmiths of time. And if time and the distillation of the years makes auburn auburn, poetry makes it Mount Auburn:
And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
Unfit in these degenerate times of shame,
To catch the heart, or strike for honest fame;
Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried,
My shame in crowds, my solitary pride;
Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe,
That found’st me poor at first, and keep’st me so;
Thou guide by which the nobler arts excell,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!