Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Old Scarlett

Old Scarlett
(Robert Scarlett, 1496-1594)

Enter the cathedral. He is still there,
painted onto a wall, above a door.
A bizarre, intriguing figure,
Robert Scarlett – “Old Scarlett”,
immortal grave-digger.

What a story he could have told,
what a life he must have led,
enduring to be so old;
yet living with the dead.
Like a leech, or vampire,
perhaps, sucking their blood,
for sustenance, as food,
a hunger that must be fed.
Unsurprising, perhaps,
his surname means “red”.

He buried Mary, Queen of Scots,
and Katharine of Aragon,
with hundreds of others,
their stories long-gone.
He had an unquenchable
lust for life; aged eighty-nine,
he wed his second wife.

Look again at the painting;
a tiny detail, almost unseen,
gives an edge to the image
of this man who buried queens.
Stocky in build, stout, not lean,
fierce character, pugnacious mien;
a direct gaze, sturdy in the hip,
there dangles from his waist
a slightly sinister whip.

As followers of this blog will know, I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough happens to have a notable cathedral, which dates back to Norman times.  I constantly castigate myself for not visiting the cathedral as frequently as I should, but I do like to read about its history, and the local history of the area.  It was while I was reading a book about the history of Peterborough that I first came across Robert Scarlett, who was described as one of Peterborough’s most legendary residents.  Scarlett was born in 1496, worked as a gravedigger, and was employed as sexton by the cathedral.  His main claim to fame is that he buried both Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots after their funerals in the cathedral, but he is also notable for living to the age of 98, and for marrying his second wife – only a year after the death of his first wife – when he was 89 years old!  It is possible that Shakespeare based the character of the gravedigger in Hamlet upon Scarlett.

As soon as I read about him, I wanted to write a poem about “Old Scarlett”, but it wasn’t until I found out that there was a painting of him in the cathedral that I realized how I could actually do it. 


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Hold Back the Night


He reads the great verses, in the bath,

at his favoured time, as the evening begins.

It is the night when the clocks are changed.

The hands go forward; time rearranged.

As he enters the bathroom, it is still daylight;

a few weeks ago, it would already be night.

He gratefully sinks into fragrant warm water;

opens his book, stilling his mind,

for the chiming cadences, lyrical lines.


The poems sink in, at varying rates.

Some do, with words, what Vermeer does with paint:

create motionless moments, meditative states.

He reads on, engrossed; outside, darkness falls.

Inside the house, too, darkness encroaches;

his bathroom the only oasis of light.

He emerges into darkness; fumbles for switches.

It is not so easy to hold back the night.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The brutal brevity of human existence, how fleeting our time is in this “vale of tears”; this is a subject that has fascinated many of our greatest poets.  Shakespeare, for instance, makes it one of the focal points of his sonnets.  How can we halt the inevitable march of time; how to “hold back the night” – to quote from a pop song of my youth.  One way is, perhaps, to capture certain magical moments, meditate upon them, and recreate them in poetry.

It’s a subject I’ve touched upon more than once in my own sequence of poems inspired by the many happy hours I’ve spent reading anthologies of poems whilst relaxing in a warm bath.  The poem above is the penultimate one in the sequence, and it came about due to a combination of changing the clocks at the Spring Equinox, after having watched a television documentary about the great Dutch artist Vermeer.


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