‘The ancient dead’- Eden Phillpotts and Dartmoor


Scorhill stone circle

Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) was an English author, poet and dramatist. Born in India, was educated in Plymouth, Devon, and worked as an insurance officer in London for ten years before studying for the stage and eventually becoming a writer based in Exeter.

eden phillpotts younger

Phillpotts was for many years the President of the Dartmoor Preservation Association and cared passionately about the conservation of  the moorland and its antiquities. Phillpotts was an astonishingly prolific writer and wrote a cycle of eighteen novels and two volumes of short stories with a Dartmoor setting.  For more detail of his intimate relationship to the moorland landscape, see the discussion on the Legendary Dartmoor website.


The menhir at Merrivale stone rows

For a fine evocation of the neolithic monuments of Dartmoor, here’s his poem The neolith:

“Sole standing in utter loneliness- superbly alone-
A monolith ruggedly lifts, with the roseal ling at its feet.
Only the murmur of bees and twinkle and throb of the heat
On the league-long height, and a shade from the granite thrown.

Roll upon roll of the moor flung out on a sky-line free;
Clouds at the zenith blue; in the flower-clad earth beneath
The dust of a neolith: one who swept over this heath
As the chieftain of vanished hordes and their fate and their destiny.

When he died, that no mocking phantom, or jealous shade
Of him mighty, should darken their lodge in the distant glen,
They brought their lord hither, on shoulders of mourning men,
And tore at their hair and howled long and fierce music made.

Then they sought for a stone of girth, that should evermore mark his place
And be seen for remembrance, afar on the frowning hill,
Of that leader of men, whose right arm and resistless will
Had lifted his clan to power and to splendour and pride of face.

He was cooped with his knees to his chin in a granite kist,
And a granite flake over his head that should last till doom.
So near doth he seem that one feels him not dead in his tomb,
But crouching, alive and alert, with a warrior’s axe in his fist.

Does he hear the old gods of the thunder? Can summer sun
Reach down to his pit? May his ears still discern the rain
Hissing over the heather, or tell if the purple stain
From a cloud-shadow dims his grey stone? When the ponies run,

Can he mark the dull drumming above of their unshod feet?
Does he chill when the snowdrift is clogged on the frozen ground?
Does he thrill to the shout of the stream, or the bay of the hound,
Or heed the sad curlew’s cry and the brown snipe bleating his bleat?

Nay, for nothing lies under the grass but the buried stones,
Or mayhap a primeval crock, or a fleck of red rust;
For the hero is earth of the earth, and its dust is his dust,
And his flesh is the flesh of the peat, and its bones are his very bones.

That master of men is ascended, for good or for bane,
And life after life hath he lived and relinquished since then—
In the heather and herbage and birds, in the beetles and foxes and men,
Each in their turn sprung of earth, each in their turn earth again.

Yesterday clad with great thews, that builded a chieftain of might;
To-day where the milkwort and fern and the starry tormentil
Spread joy by the auburn beck and loveliness on the hill;
To-morrow a moorman’s fire at the fall of a winter’s night.

And the aura, so azure clear, that is running above the red,
Was the glow of a savage heart imprisoned within the brand;
And the warmth on your hand was the sun on a stone-man’s hand
From the far-off, hard-bitten days that were lived by the ancient dead.

So mutable myriads wake to the ring of their morning chime;
So mutable myriads pass at the set of their final sun;
And only Matter remains- the august, the unchanging one-
But no shape and no shadow of aught that she moulds on the wheel of Time.

And ye who would bring man his soul from a mystical matrix apart;
And ye who would conjure man’s life to a land beyond Matter’s ken,
Must proclaim how her rape overtook her, and wherefore, and when,
Ere we bend to your idols, or take these your fairyland stories to heart.”


6 thoughts on “‘The ancient dead’- Eden Phillpotts and Dartmoor

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